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    Day 8: Moscow

    After our big day of travelling yesterday, we decided to have a more leisurely start to today. We arranged to meet for breakfast at 9am, although I ended up being slightly late because I was trying to write up yesterday's blog, and then we agreed to leave the hotel at 10.15 and head straight to Red Square in the hope of being able to see Lenin. From the sign we'd seen on Thursday, we understood that the mausoleum was going to be open between 10am and 1pm on Saturday. We caught the metro to Okhotny Ryad and probably got the world's best view from a metro station as we walked up the stairs to exit. When we saw how close to Red Square the metro was, we felt a bit silly for not having been able to find it on Thursday. But it really wasn't obvious - we had emerged from an underpass which had no red "M" sign on it or any other indication that it was leading to a metro. It was busy in Red Square this morning with more tour groups than there had been earlier in the week, but for some reason there weren't any security bag checks to go through today. There had been a book fair in the square on Thursday, so maybe that had required increased security. It was great to be in the square again. And, of course, brilliant to get another opportunity to see St Basil's. Unfortunately, when we got to the place where we were expecting the queue to start for the mausoleum, the gates were closed. There were lots of other tourists standing around looking confused. We overheard one of the guards saying that the mausoleum was closed today. What a shame We got to see it from the outside anyway, and then we had more time to enjoy the views of St Basil's. Helen suggested that we walk around the side of it, which was a really good idea because we got to see this beautiful pink and white dome which we hadn't noticed the other day. All the famous pictures of the church are taken from the other side, but it's actually really pretty from the back too And as we got further away we could see both the blue and pink domes We walked away from St Basil's and past a succession of other, smaller churches. I don't know what the bright red one is called, but it was a really striking colour. We were heading towards Moscow's newest park: Park Zaryadye. As we began to climb up through it, we got some wonderful views back towards St Basil's. It was a struggle to keep my eyes open with the really bright sunlight, hence me looking a bit startled in this photo Tim somehow managed to keep his open! The views of the entire Kremlin were great from here too. We could also see down towards some of the churches we'd just walked past. The park, which was built on the site of a former Soviet hotel, has a "floating bridge" which extends out over the Moscow river. From here we were able to look out across the river and see some of the sights we'd noticed on our boat trip the other day. We could also see the other way, towards the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour with its huge golden dome. The bridge was quite busy with tour groups, but other parts of the park were quite peaceful. I only realised when we were partway around it that the vegetation was divided into different zones, I think representing different regions of Russia. Overall it was a really fun park to explore, and much bigger than I expected when I'd seen it from the boat the other day. Our second plan for the day was a slightly unusual one: a tour of some of Moscow's most impressive metro stations. This was something we'd read about in the Lonely Planet Moscow book and deliberately saved for Saturday in the hope that the metro would be less busy then. Mom and Helen had taken notes of a route for us to follow, which started at the Komsomolskaya metro station. This was a really grand station, with some impressive pillars at platform level. The station is named after youth workers who helped with the construction of it. You can see the Komsomol emblem at the top of the pillars. As we walked through the interchange between one line and another, there were also some very pretty tiled pillars. We passed a military-looking decoration on the wall... ...walked down a lovely tiled corridor... ...and emerged onto an absolutely beautiful platform for the circle line. It looked more like a museum than a metro station! At the end of the platform we even found a little bust of Lenin From this station we got onto the circle line and travelled one stop to our next destination: Prospekt Mira. The guidebook told us that this station would feature porcelain depictions of people planting trees, bringing in the harvest and generally living in harmony. That did indeed seem to be the case. Another stop further on took us to Novoslobodskaya. The highlight of this station was a mosaic called "Peace in the whole world". The white doves in the mosaic have been added in later, replacing what was formerly a portrait of Stalin. The other beautiful thing about this metro station was the stained glass. The walls of the tunnel between the platform were lined with these colourful stained glass panels. There were too many to take pictures of them all, so we had to pick our favourites From Novoslobodskaya we travelled one more stop to Belorusskaya. Just the platform itself was impressive at this station! In the passage outside, the ceiling panels depicted different scenes relating to Belarus. Again, there were too many to take a photo of so we had to pick our favourites At this station we had to leave the brown circle line and switch to the green line. As we were travelling between different parts of the station, we passed this rather imposing sculpture. It was amazing to see how in this part of the station, even the lights and pipes were decorated with patterns. A little bit blurry, but our first stop on the green line was Mayakovskaya. The guidebook seemed to think this was the metro station to end all metro stations, but it wasn't my favourite overall. There were some cool features, like these little stars and hammer and sickles which were decorating the light fittings. The ceiling also featured little mosaics, which seemed to be depicting military themes. Some of them were a bit dark so it was hard to make out what they were. From Mayakovskaya we skipped a stop and went two stops down to Teatralnaya. The porcelain figures which decorate this station depict people from other Soviet republics wearing their national dress. The overall effect was quite grand Our next stop was a very exciting one: Ploshchad Revolyutsii. This station is full of sculptures which depict the different roles people played in the revolution. Some of them were quite scary-looking characters! This was definitely the station with the best statues Moving on again, we came to Arbatskaya. This station was described as having a baroque atmosphere. It did indeed have a rather elegant feel. We were getting towards the end of our tour now. The next destination was Kievskaya. This station was decorated with friezes of life in Ukraine. Lots and lots of friezes of life in Ukraine This seemed like quite a busy interchange station though, so we had to be careful not to get in people's way as we were taking our photos. There is a big fresco at the end of the hall which celebrates Russian-Ukrainian co-operation. As Tim and I had been in Kiev quite recently, this was exciting to see. We recognised the cathedral in the picture The final station on our tour was Park Pobedy. I've lost track of how many stations we visited, but this felt like excellent value for 55 rubles (67p). I was quite excited about getting to Park Pobedy, because apparently it has the longest escalators in the world. They certainly felt very long; I timed the journey up and it took approximately 5 minutes. Once we got to the top of the escalators, the exit walkway was decorated with a military mural. When we came up above ground, we found ourselves outside a triumphal arch, celebrating Russia's victory over Napoleon. On the other side of the road, we found a flower display spelling out the name of the city It was mid-afternoon by this point and everyone felt starving. My parents located a cafe just around the corner and we all sat down for some much-needed lunch. The weather wasn't great by this point and it was starting to spot with rain a bit. After lunch, Tim and I explored the park a bit while my family went to look for a post office. Park Pobedy, or Victory Park, was created in the 1960s as an open-air museum to commemorate Russia's victory over Napoleon. Since then it has been expanded to commemorate the Russian victory in WW2 also. There were some very impressive statues here. There were also a lot of fountains, although they weren't quite as impressive as the ones we'd seen at Peterhof In the distance we could also see a church with a huge golden dome. The rain started to get a bit stronger while we were walking around the park, so we headed back in the direction of the metro station. Before we set off back for the hotel, we stopped off to buy some souvenirs. I've never seen so many matroyshka dolls in one place When talking about the Park Pobedy metro station, the guidebook had said that there were enamel panels at both ends of the hall, depicting military victories in 1812 and 1945. We hadn't been able to locate either of them when we were coming out and going up the escalators, but on the way back down we found the 1812 one We also found another Lenin monument. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped off at a nearby cafe for a coffee. Well, I had an iced coffee and Tim had a beer Tim suggested that we order some cake as well and when it came it was absolutely massive! I had Prague cake again, which was extremely chocolatey. Tim had a Moscow cake, which we've never heard of before, but which seemed to involve nuts and red icing. It was a fun end to what had been a very busy day (and a very busy holiday!!)
  3. We had quite an adventure planned today, travelling to the small town of Suzdal which is approximately 150 miles east of Moscow. The guidebook advertised it as a day-trip from Moscow, but it's just about at the limit of the distance which you can do there and back in a day. Our journey was going to involve travelling to the nearby town of Vladimir by train, before attempting to catch a bus to Suzdal itself. The first step was to get to Moscow's Kursky train station. We left the hotel an hour before we needed to catch our train, but things still ended up being a little bit frantic when we couldn't find the entrance to the metro station we needed (only the exit!). We got there in the end, passed through the train station security and found our platform with a few minutes to spare. Boarding the train was a complicated process; we had bought tickets online in advance, so we had allocated seats in a specific carriage, but trying to find the correct carriage was a bit of a nightmare. In the end we realised that there were small signs with the carriage number stuck on a window in each carriage, but they weren't very prominent. Everyone who wanted to get on at that carriage had to join a queue to have their ID checked by the conductor and then be pointed in the direction of their seat. You have to give your ID number at the time of booking and then it seems like no one wants to see your actual ticket; the conductor was just typing the ID numbers into a little machine to check that we had a reservation. Eventually we got on and the train departed promptly. The journey from Moscow to Vladimir took around 1 hour 45 minutes on a Lastochka train, which only made one intermediate stop. As on our journey from St Petersburg the other day, the vast majority of the view which we saw consisted of forest. Russia definitely has a lot of trees We arrived in Vladimir around 11.15 and made our way to the bus station, which is helpfully situated just across the road from the train station. Neither building is particularly scenic. Once we were in the bus station, the next challenge was to buy tickets to Suzdal. The bus station had all manner of different counters, some of which seemed to be for buying specific types of tickets or tickets in specific directions. Unfortunately I couldn't understand what all the signs meant, so I chose a counter which I hoped said could be used to purchase all types of ticket and decided to give it a go. Luckily, in answer to my question as to whether it was possible to buy tickets to Suzdal here, the lady behind the counter said yes and sold me five. Phew The tickets turned out to be very good value once again, costing around 100 rubles each. We had just missed a bus at 11.30, so had been sold tickets for the next bus which was at 12.00. That meant we had some time to kill in the bus station, which was an interesting experience as it was lined with all manner of strange stalls selling everything from passport covers with the face of Putin to Transformers. The one thing they didn't sell was a spare screw for Helen's sunglasses, although she did look up the word and give it a try! The bus tickets had what looked like a seat number on them, though it wasn't 100% clear whether this was really a seat number or whether this was just the number of tickets which the lady had already sold for this bus. When the bus arrived, we joined the queue and decided to attempt to sit in our numbered seats anyway. It worked, although I'm still not sure whether this was luck or because everyone was really obeying the numbering system. The bus quickly became very crowded anyway, with more people joining at stops within Vladimir once we had left the bus station, and it was full to standing as we eventually made our way our of the town and onto the main road towards Suzdal. Vladimir felt like a big place and it took us a while to get to the outskirts of it, but we weren't actually sure how large it was. Having now looked it up, it turns out the population is around 345,000 which is indeed a significant size. Once we left the city behind, the views became much more scenic. We could see splashes of purple in lots of the fields that we passed through, but initially weren't sure what they were. Eventually we realised that they were wild lupins. How beautiful The journey to Suzdal took around 50 minutes. We arrived at the bus station and went inside to take a photo of the times for the return journey. The bus station is located about a mile outside of the main town but it's quite an easy walk, all along one main road. As we walked along, we got a view of our first church. The road was lined with beautiful wooden houses. Some were brightly coloured... ...some were more traditional... ...and some were really grand. We also passed some rather unusual floral displays housed in old tyres! As we got closer to the centre of the town, there was a children's play area with some rather spectacular wood carvings. And then we were in the centre of town, and could see the trading arcades and resurrection church. It was definitely lunch time by this point, so we decided to investigate the trading arcades to see whether we could find something to eat. We eventually settled on this restaurant, which was serving traditional Russian cuisine. Some of us had soup, others had pelmeni (Russian dumplings, a bit like ravioli). The thing I was most excited about though was the fact that Helen and I got an entire litre jug of cranberry juice to share Cranberry juice seems to be really popular over here! Once we'd eaten, we went out to explore Suzdal. The reason we wanted to come here is that it is one of the "Golden Ring" towns and also one of the oldest towns in Russia. The town avoided industrialisation because it wasn't on the railway, and so is still home to lots of churches and historic buildings. This red building is the Assumption Church. We went inside and I think it must have been the coolest place in Suzdal today It was absolutely baking outside and stepping into the church was like going into a fridge! We walked past a park, heading towards the Suzdal Kremlin. The Suzdal Kremlin dates from the 10th century. The most impressive building which is housed by the Kremlin walls is the Cathedral of the Nativity. The cathedral was originally constructed in the 11th century and today is a World Heritage Site. The blue roof with golden stars was absolutely stunning You can buy a ticket to go into the Kremlin, but today we didn't have time. Navigated by Helen, we pressed on through a field... ...and crossed a river. On the far side of the river was the main thing which we had come to see; the Museum of Wooden Architecture and Peasant Life. It cost 400 rubles each (around £4.85) to buy a ticket to get into this open-air museum, which is home to examples of wooden architecture from all around the region. The first building which we saw when we entered was this absolutely stunning wooden church. That was the wooden Transfiguration Church and next to it was the equally beautiful wooden Resurrection Church. It was incredible that something so intricate had been built completely out of wood. The museum was also home to a couple of peasant houses which you could go inside to see what life would have been like for Russian peasants. There was one for a well-off peasant and one for a peasant that was less well off. The house for the well-off peasant in particular didn't look too bad, although I wouldn't have fancied sleeping on this bed-shelf right up by the ceiling! The thing which I was most excited about seeing was the wooden windmill! There was a map showing how many water mills and wind mills there had been in Suzdal. It looked like they had a lot of windmills in the past! We could definitely all have stayed in the museum longer, but Tim pointed out that we needed to start making tracks back towards the bus station if we wanted to catch the 5pm bus to Vladimir. And so we went back across the river and through fields to get back to the bus station. Tim and I went ahead to buy bus tickets and before too long we were sitting on the bus back to Vladimir. It wasn't as crowded as it had been on the journey out, but it was still extremely hot! When we arrived in Vladimir we had a slight problem as we weren't sure where the centre of the town was. We could see what looked like an enormous cathedral perched on the side of a hill and figured that the town must be in that direction. While my parents tried unsuccessfully to get a taxi, Tim and I began to climb up towards the cathedral. Our strategy was partly just to walk towards it and partly to follow the directions on my offline map. This led to us taking a very strange route, up some extremely steep steps which were overgrown with nettles and along some dirt tracks, before finally emerging at the top of the hill outside the cathedral. This is the Assumption Cathedral, which is also part of a World Heritage Site. Vladimir was one of the medieval capitals of Russia and a cathedral was originally built here in the 12th century. For over 300 years it was the biggest church in Russia, and it still looks pretty big today! The golden domes on the roof were absolutely beautiful We'd just got around to the front of the cathedral when my family rejoined us, having found a much more civilised route up the main road towards the town centre In front of the cathedral we found this cool "I love Vladimir" sign We didn't have loads of time in Vladimir before we needed to catch our train home, but there was one more thing I wanted to see. Tim and I raced off down the main street in search of the Golden Gate. The gate was constructed between 1158 and 1164 and survived the Mongol destruction of Vladimir in 1237. It was reconstructed in 1795 after being damaged in a fire. We rejoined the others, who had found a nice restaurant to get pizza. We all had time to eat, before heading back to the train station and setting off on the long journey back to Moscow. As we passed by a park outside the cathedral in Vladimir, I was slightly surprised to see a small child driving a toy tank On the way to the station we also passed another beautiful church... ...and this pretty yellow building which looked very official. It was a long journey home, but all in all we had a brilliant day It would have been nice to be able to spend longer in both Vladimir and Suzdal, but I'm really glad that we got to see at least part of them today
  4. Clare

    Day 6: Moscow

    We woke up this morning excited to explore Moscow... and also to explore the breakfast buffet of our new hotel It's smaller than the one in St Petersburg so the buffet wasn't quite so extensive, but it was still pretty good. There were proper pancakes, in addition to the unusual deep-fried ones. And the coffee was very nice once someone showed me how to use the machine! After spending some time consulting our Moscow guidebooks, we decided that we were close enough to Red Square to walk. We hadn't got very far from our hotel when we caught sight of this striking church. It turns out this is the Conception Convent. The doors were open so we decided to go inside. The views were even better from inside the walls. Tim had shorts on, so he stayed outside while the rest of us went into the church. We had dressed ourselves to look suitably modest The interior of the church was as beautiful as the exterior. It was decorated with all kinds of icons, although we struggled to work out who most of them were depicting. After this unexpected diversion, we continued on our route towards the river. We emerged opposite a huge statue of Peter the Great. From there we were able to stroll along the river for a while and, very excitingly, we got our first glimpse of the Kremlin. Before we went there we had something else we wanted to see, though: the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. This is the tallest Orthodox church in the world and as we got closer to it, we could indeed see that it was enormous! If you think that the cathedral looks really new, that's because it is. There was an older church here, built during the 19th century, but it was destroyed by Stalin in 1931. Today's church was rebuilt on the same site between 1995 and 2000. While Tim waited outside on a shady bench, the rest of us ventured inside via this little door. We passed through security then ended up in what seemed to be a smaller chapel. From there, we followed signs which led us up a winding staircase and into the main cathedral. The inside was absolutely stunning, with beautiful paintings and more icons, but no pictures were allowed. Once we'd finished exploring the cathedral, we had to retrieve Tim. That took a while, as we came out of a different door from the one where we'd entered and had to figure out a way to get back down and round to where we'd started, which was complicated by the fact that there were some works going on outside the cathedral. We succeeded in the end, then made our way back across the main road. We were getting closer to the Kremlin! We needed to cross the main road again, but got stuck for a while because there seemed to have been an accident. The traffic police turned up to sort it out and eventually we managed to get across. The Kremlin walls were very imposing. We walked past a square with a huge statue. At the time we weren't sure who it was of, but it turns out to be a monument to Vladimir the Great. This is quite a new statue and was only erected in 2016. From there we walked into the Alexander Gardens, which stretch alongside the Kremlin walls. There were all kinds of things to see here. We think this monument was commemorating the 1812 war. We recognised the picture of the cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan which we'd been into in St Petersburg on Sunday As we strolled along we enjoyed wonderful views of the Kremlin towers. We found an obelisk, celebrating 300 years of the Romanov dynasty. Poignantly, the original was erected in 1914 by which point the dynasty wasn't going to last much longer. We liked this grotto, although we'd not sure what it was for. Helen and I climbed to the top and got some good views There was a row of monuments commemorating towns where battles took place during the Second World War. Coincidentally, considering I've just been to both places, the blocks for Kiev and Leningrad were right next to each other. From here we just had to pass through a security check and we were in Red Square. Most excitingly, we finally got our first glimpse of St Basil's Cathedral Once in the square, it was hard to know where to look first. In one direction we could see the historical museum... ...and in the other we could see the Kremlin and the cathedral. We also got a glimpse of this smaller pink church, which is the Kazan cathedral. One of the things we'd really wanted to do was see Lenin. We got to his mausoleum, which you can see to the right of the photo below, but couldn't see the way in. Eventually we figured out that we had to go all the way back to where we'd been at the entrance of the square and join a queue for another security check. Unfortunately, the mausoleum is only open until 1pm and at this point it was around 12.54. We got to the point where the queue started but the gates were closed and they weren't letting any more people in Never mind, maybe we can come back on Saturday! There was lots to see in the square, but St Basil's was definitely the thing I was most excited about It's such a beautiful building, and so unique! We all experimented with taking selfies We could have stood and admired the cathedral all day, but it was a very hot day and we were hungry, so we decided to go into the GUM department store. It was a really beautiful building, although all the shops seemed very posh. We ate at a canteen called Stolovaya 57. We had to join a long line to queue to get in, with a couple of aggressive ladies behind us who seemed intent on pushing in. Once we had trays we were able to pick from a very varied selection of food, some of which we could help ourselves to and some of which had to be served. Slightly bizarrely, the first food we came to were the deserts. I took a large slice of chocolate cake, just in case I didn't like any of the main courses But the main courses actually turned out to be really good and I ended up with one of the nicest chicken kievs I've ever eaten! There was no dill in it, which was a good start I had "macaroni" (actually penne!) with it, and a beautiful glass of cranberry juice. Our next challenge was to find our way out of GUM, which is easier said that done. There seem to be escalators going up, but only stairs going down. It was all a bit confusing. We found an exit in the end and emerged outside the pink cathedral. It looked really beautiful here, but we were suddenly in a bit of a rush because we'd booked tickets for a boat tour and there was a departure we'd wanted to catch at 3pm. We were looking for the metro station Okhotny Ryad and Helen managed to navigate us to approximately the right area, but we couldn't see the entrance to the metro anywhere. We were running around in different directions in the hope of spotting a red "M" somewhere. Mom asked a person who suggested it was to the left, so I suggested that she, Dad and Helen go on ahead to find it. Tim was out of sight at that point in time, but I was hoping that he'd return shortly and we could catch them up... He was quite a long way away though, so it took longer than I expected for us to be reunited and when he did return, it turned out that he'd also asked someone who had shown him a route through the shopping centre I was standing outside. So we decided to go that way, quickly bought tickets and got on the metro in record time, getting off a couple of stops down the line outside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. I phoned Helen to see where they were, hoping they might have beat us to the boat! Unfortunately, they'd been directed to a different metro station to the one we actually wanted and so were still on their way. We were going to have to give up on the 3pm boat! The good news was that there was another boat at 4pm so we all sat and had a drink while we waited for that. The boat felt rather old and rickety and had a very loud engine which meant that we didn't stand much chance of hearing the commentary. But we were able to buy drinks on board and sit and watch the views go by We passed the cathedral... ...and the Kremlin. From here we got a much better view of the churches inside the Kremlin walls We got to see St Basil's again... ...and we saw the new Park Zaryadye. We also saw this really unusual building, but I'm not sure what it was! The boat took us around in a circle, returning us to where we'd got on outside the cathedral. From there, we were able to walk back along the river towards our hotel, where we could relax a bit before going out again for dinner in the evening.
  5. Today has been a day of travelling! It was around 3am this morning before Tim and I got to bed and as a result I was rather tired this morning. I accidentally managed to dismiss rather than snooze my 08.30 alarm, with the result that we were slightly late for our prearranged 9am breakfast time. After enjoying the hotel's breakfast buffet for a final time, we went back to our rooms to pack and - in Tim's case - write up last night's blog. We checked out of the hotel around 11.30 and set off on the metro towards St Petersburg's Moskovsky railway station. After our issues with getting to the hydrofoil on Monday, we weren't taking any chances and left with plenty of time to spare. It wasn't actually that far away, and so we arrived with plenty of time to get through security and board our train. We were travelling on a train called the Nevsky Express, which covers the approximately 445 miles between St Petersburg and Moscow in around 4 hours. We had booked five seats out of six in a compartment and were pleasantly surprised when we found that a sixth person didn't turn up to claim the spare seat The train set off punctually and soon we were on our way, speeding through the suburbs of St Petersburg before emerging into the forested countryside. My impression from the views today is that there isn't a lot between St Petersburg and Moscow except trees Some aspects of the train journey were rather confusing. An official-looking lady came into our carriage and I assumed she wanted to check our tickets. But it turned out that she just wanted to tell us that a sandwich was included in our ticket and that we could buy tea and coffee from her. A bit later another lady turned up with the sandwiches. We all chose chicken, but I couldn't eat mine because of a combination of carrots, gherkins and mayonnaise! Luckily Mom had been out shopping in the morning and picked up some bread so I didn't starve We also got some free chocolate, which was a nice surprise, and it was great to be able to have a coffee, although it felt like we got served our hot drinks at one of the bumpiest parts of the journey. Tim and Helen ordered tea, which was served in these amazing Russian railway mugs. Tim was so impressed by his that he bought one The train was beautifully air-conditioned, so it felt like the journey passed quite quickly. Every so often there were gaps in the trees and we got glimpses of lakes and rivers. The train was mostly going too fast for us to see the names of the places we passed through but most of them looked quite small, with the exception of Tver. We arrived in Moscow right on schedule and then had to negotiate our way to the hotel. I had been dreading this slightly as I thought the metro would be dreadful in rush hour, but either we were going on a really unpopular route or rush hour starts later than I expected, because the journey turned out to be absolutely fine and we got seats with no problems. The Moscow metro is different to the ones in St Petersburg and Kiev in that it doesn't use a system of tokens. Instead, we bought cardboard tickets for a certain number of journeys out of a machine. It was 55 rubles (66p) per trip, which is more expensive than St Petersburg but still nothing compared to the minimum charge on the London Underground (which I think is about £2.40). We checked into the hotel and I was impressed by the size of my room As well as the bed, we've got a desk and sofa. By this point we were all tired and hungry so we set out to find food, eventually tracking down an Italian restaurant where we could get pizza. So far we haven't seen anything of Moscow, but we're looking forward to exploring after a good night's sleep tomorrow
  6. After our full day's adventure at Tsarskoe Selo and knowing that we're heading to Moscow tomorrow, you might have thought that our plans for the early hours of the morning were limited to being in bed, as they would be for sensible people. That wasn't the case for us; there was still more adventuring to get in and so at 23:20, Clare, Helen and I headed out of the hotel in the direction of the Fortanka to get on a boat. Not just any boat. This one was advertised as being romantic and featuring a saxophone player. In spite of that, we still chose to go because this was going to be a night-time cruise featuring the raising of the drawbridges! Because of Moscow's international status, it's easy not to be aware of quite how important St Petersburg is. It was the Empire's capital city until 1918, an important port on the Baltic Sea and Russia's Window to the West. Large ships need to travel through it, even though the bridges spanning the Neva and main canals aren't large enough to let them through. The solution involves a nightly process of raising 22 bridges across the city according to a timetable, allowing the larger ships a temporal and physical slot to pass through. It was the ceremonial raising of the drawbridges which we came to see. Leaving the hotel, we noticed that streetlights were on, although they didn't really need to be. St Petersburg is sufficiently northerly that there was still a fair bit of natural light even though the midnight hour was approaching. The red church we regularly pass was perfectly bright in spite of the time: The Fortanka presented a perfectly lovely sight too: We arrived at our ship with plenty of time to spare and were rewarded with even more spare time by the lady in the ticket office informing us that our boat, set to depart at 00:10, was no longer running. But that was alright because we had been moved to the 00:30 departure, so we sat at a little table for the next forty minutes or so as more people arrived. After boarding, we proved to be one of only three little groups to take a seat inside; everybody else was sitting on chairs on the deck, leaving us with the impression of having the room to ourselves: We were sitting at our corner table as the boat pulled off: We had 360-degree vision because of all the surrounding windows: But the best views were provided by popping up to the deck. I was quickly rewarded by the sight of the circus: What a beautiful building! Soon we had passed through a bridge and had left for Fortanka for the Neva: We were surrounded on both sides by illuminated grand buildings: We passed several familiar buildings, including the Winter Palace: And the Kunstkamera, the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography: We travelled as far as the Admiralty, and then turned back. Within a couple of minutes we were part of a fleet converged on a bridge, gently bobbing on the water whilst people lined the banks: And then music struck up and we were treated to the following spectacle: That was amazing! All too soon, we had passed under the bridge and were leaving it behind: The Winter Palace looked wonderful as we drifted past: Why were we drifting? So as not to get to the following bridge too early and miss it being raised! Soon we'd passed that too! There wasn't much of the journey left as we turned back down the Fortanka. Still enough time to grab some wine whilst the saxophonist continued his somewhat lonely vigil. Before long we'd disembarked. This was approaching 2am and the sun was on its way back! Human engineering ingenuity had presented us with some remarkable and memorable sights over the course of our evening, but Mother Nature had a trick in hand too. Look at this remarkable gradation in the sky, preceeding from a very deep blue to a pale dawn. You can't notice the difference between one strip of sky and the next but spanning from side to side, you see how intense the colour change is: And so began a totally relaxing stroll back to the hotel in the tourist-free early hours of the morning. Tomorrow we leave Saint Petersburg for Moscow!
  7. We spent a while this morning debating where we were going to go today, before finally deciding on Tsarskoe Selo. It felt like a potentially difficult place to get to, requiring several changes of public transport, but the town is home to the Catherine Palace, which was formerly a summer residence of the Russian tsars. We didn't want to go into the palace, but we knew it was surrounded by some beautiful grounds and we were keen to see those. After a bit of post-breakfast research, we decided to go for it and brave the public transport. The first step was to catch a metro to Pushkinskaya, which is next to St Petersburg's Vitebsky railway station. I didn't expect the station itself to be anything special, but it turned out to be absolutely beautiful inside This was the first railway station to be opened in Russia in 1837, and it still feels very grand. Buying tickets in the station could potentially be a confusing experience, because there are two places to buy them; one ticket hall sells tickets for long-distance trains, while the other sells tickets for the suburban trains. The research we'd done on the Internet paid off at this point, because I knew we needed to ignore the long distance counter and follow the signs for suburban trains. We were able to buy the tickets we needed from a machine, and a return fare to Tsarskoe Selo turned out to cost the bargain price of £1.14 each! The train we wanted to catch was already waiting on the platform, so we were able to get straight on board. It was good that we were there well ahead of the departure time, because it turned out to be an extremely popular route. The train itself was pretty basic, with hard wooden seats like yesterday's. And the journey itself was a rather surreal experience! We were only on the train for around 30 minutes, but in that time we had two separate people busking in the carriage and a man with a microphone who was trying to sell all manner of strange things from tape measures to rucksacks. No one else on the train seemed even remotely surprised by any of this, so I guess it was all perfectly normal! We got off the train around 11.30 and then it was time to negotiate our final bit of public transport: the bus. This was the part I was most worried about, because it felt like catching a bus when you don't know where you're going is something which has the potential to go a bit wrong. In the end it was fine though. The bus arrived almost immediately, the fare only cost 48p each and Helen had a list of the bus stops we were supposed to pass through, so we just about managed to get off in the right place, a few hundred metres away from the main entrance to the Catherine Palace. We knew we were on the right track when we caught sight of some golden domes on the horizon. We found the correct ticket booth and I managed to buy us tickets for the park. The lady was very nice and gave us all a free map; much better than Peterhof yesterday, where we only got a map because Mom bought a guidebook! Entrance to the park was another bargain at 150 rubles (£1.81). Although we hadn't come to go inside the palace, we had to admit that it looked beautiful from the outside. Slightly frustratingly, after having had quite a torturous journey to get here, we found that the area outside the palace was absolutely swarming with large groups on guided tours. But, once we turned our back on the palace and struck out into the gardens, things instantly became a lot quieter. We walked down tree-lined alleys, then crossed a little canal. This took us towards the hermitage pavilion. It was such a beautiful shade of blue We were able to walk all the way around it and peer in through the windows, getting glimpses of the equipment which was used to host dinner parties in days gone by. From here, we also had a view back towards the main palace. It was a baking hot day by this stage, so we were glad to soon get back onto some shadier paths. We were heading towards the park's main lake. We came to a brick tower which said it housed a restaurant and decided to investigate. Unfortunately, the menu wasn't great and seemed to involve a lot of trout. Mom, Dad and Helen bought some piroshki to eat from a stall instead. Unfortunately, they didn't have any meat ones left (only either cabbage, or chicken and mushroom). Tim and I didn't fancy either of those, so we set off to see whether we could find another restaurant instead. We had seen one signposted, so felt hopeful. Unfortunately, the hope turned out to be misplaced! The first restaurant we found was closed, the second one was only accessible if you left the park first, which we didn't want to do, and then when we walked halfway across the park to a third one, we found that was closed as well It looked like we needed to give up on the idea of lunch! We rejoined my family and began to explore a different bit of the park. There was an amazing display of tulips; it felt so unusual to be seeing them in June! This side of the park was really peaceful. In the distance we caught sight of a rather unusual building. This was labelled on the map as the Creaking Summerhouse. That wasn't the only strange monument round by the lake! We assume this one was a sort of grotto. This one was definitely a pyramid. And this one was a gothic gate. The most striking building was this one, which looked very much like a mosque. It turns out it was a Turkish bath, which had indeed been designed to look like a mosque. The reflection of the building in the water was beautiful We crossed the water via this lovely marble bridge. By this stage we'd walked around the majority of the park. We contemplated trying to take a ferry to the island in the middle of the lake, but no one seemed to be operating it from the side of the lake we were on. We carried on instead and soon we were back to where we had started, outside the main palace. From there, we had to repeat our journey in reverse order. First of all the bus to the station, then the train back to St Petersburg, and finally the metro. I had to buy us a new ticket for the train, because all the upcoming departures seemed to be for the "comfort" class of train which our tickets weren't valid on. When the train arrived, it did indeed seem to be more comfortable, with big upholstered seats and plenty of legroom We made it back to St Petersburg for around 5pm and so were early enough to miss the worst of rush hour on the metro. In the evening, we went out for a meal at the restaurant we'd eaten in on Sunday night which was really nice and really good value yet again. The only strange thing about Russian restaurants is that it doesn't seem to be normal to bring everyone's food out at the same time, with the result that when you're in a group, some people have almost finished eating their dinner before other people's has even arrived. Other than that it was good, and we have more excitement to look forward to this evening with a drawbridge boat tour... if we can manage to stay awake until midnight!!!
  8. We made an early start and were eating breakfast at 07.30 this morning, because we had a big day ahead of us. We were planning to visit the gardens at Peterhof, around 25 miles outside St Petersburg. There are various ways that you can get there, but we'd chosen what seemed the most fun: hydrofoil. We'd already booked our tickets online, reserving seats on the first hydrofoil of the day at 10am. The hope was that that would get us to our destination early enough to see the famous fountains being turned on at 11am. We left the hotel around 08.45 and walked to our local metro station, from where we were planning to travel to a station on the river close to where the hydrofoils depart. We'd got up so early that it felt like nothing could possibly go wrong... and then it did! The doors to the metro station were shut. How confusing! At first we thought that there must be another entrance somewhere and started walking around the building, hoping to find a second door. But there wasn't one, and when we eventually returned to where we had started, we realised that there was a sign outside the door saying it was going to be closed in the mornings for repairs. Oh dear! By the time we had figured all this out, we had about 50 minutes until our hydrofoil. We seemed to have three options: to jump in a taxi, to try and find the next nearest metro station and continue by metro, or to walk down to the river. We checked an offline map, which suggested that the walk was 48 minutes. Tim and I were confident that we could shave a few minutes off the predicted walking time, so decided that we would risk the walk. My family decided to try the next nearest metro station, and so we set off in opposite directions, hoping to see each other again at the boat. I was a little bit stressed about whether choosing to walk was the best decision and whether we were going to make it on time, but Tim was relaxed enough to take photos. In fairness, today was a good day for it because there was a beautiful blue sky behind all the buildings where there had been clouds yesterday. We crossed over the Fontanka river... ...jogged down an avenue of trees... ...got a glimpse of the amazing church from yesterday... ...and unexpectedly ended up outside the Winter Palace again. From there, it wasn't too far until the Admirality building, which was near where we needed to catch the hydrofoil. We arrived at the boat with 10 minutes to spare, but until we boarded we couldn't see whether the others had made it as well. I held by breath as we got onto the boat.... and found that they weren't there Never mind, there were still about eight minutes; maybe they would still turn up! We waited and waited but there was no sign. At the point the boat was due to depart I tried texting and calling, but there was no response. And then just as the hydrofoil started pulling out into the river, I got a text from my sister saying that they weren't going to make it So, Tim and I were accidentally off to Peterhof on our own! The hydrofoil sailed past the Winter Palace, and then past the Peter and Paul Fortress. After that, the scenery became more modern. We got a good view of the Lakhta Center, which - with 87 storeys - is apparently not only the tallest building in Russia, but also the tallest building in Europe After about 40 minutes, the hydrofoil arrived at Peterhof. Luckily the others had managed to get tickets for the next hydrofoil, which departed St Petersburg at 10.30, so we wouldn't have too long to wait for them. While they were still en route, we needed to get up to the top of the canal as soon as possible if we wanted to witness the fountains being turned on at 11am. We could soon see the Peterhof palace in the distance. The enormous set of fountains in front of it is known as the Grand Cascade. We weren't the only people who wanted to see the Grand Cascade being turned on, and the closer we got to it the busier it became. We eventually managed to find a space where we could watch by on the staircase along one side of the cascade. Then it was just a case of waiting until the water was turned on It seemed like we were waiting forever but it was only a couple of minutes and then the water started along with the music Wow! That was really impressive As soon as the show was over, people started to disperse a bit and we made our way back down along the canal towards the waterfront to wait for the next hydrofoil to come in. Within a few minutes we were all reunited, and we were able to have a more relaxed stroll back up along the canal together. It was still busy as we got closer to the palace, but not as bad as it had been. The palace at Peterhof was commissioned by Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century and designed to rival the palace of Versailles. The palace itself was closed today but that was fine by us, because we mainly wanted to explore the grounds. We started by climbing up the staircase beside the Grand Cascade. From here we had some amazing views. We were now able to look down on the Grand Cascade from above I got very excited when I realised we could see a rainbow in the water. It was also exciting to be able to see all the way back down the canal to the sea! Once we'd finished admiring the views, we carried on across the top of the cascade and onto what looked like it might be a quieter path. We walked around the edge of a pond... ...passed what was described on the map as a "memorable bench", although we suspect in reality it was supposed to be a "memorial bench".... ...and then emerged beside a colonnade. This was full of fountains too When we left there, we passed a surprising patch of tulips... ...then found another, smaller, cascade. We found ourselves beside a huge lake. There was a series of little white bridges to walk across to get to this white palace. We climbed up an embankment on the far side of the lake. From there, we could see back out across the Gulf of Finland. And, of course, we had a great view of the gardens, including the cascade on the opposite side of the lake. We stopped at a self-service restaurant, where we were able to try a variety of Russian food - including piroshki and kvass - for lunch. After we'd eaten, we crossed the canal to explore the opposite side of the Lower Park. There were lots of fountains here too We also found a statue of Peter the Great himself. Mom told us that he had installed "trick fountains" in the gardens, to catch and spray people unawares. Sure enough, we soon found one - and plenty of children waiting to try it out We passed the Sun Fountain... ...and found a pair of beautiful, marble fountains. They were below the final cascade, known as the Chessboard Cascade. We hung around here for a while, waiting to see another trick fountain which signs warned would be activated at 15.00. Some people had come well prepared to run through it After we'd seen the trick fountain alley, we began to climb back up towards the Upper Gardens. Unlike the Lower Park, which you have to buy a ticket for, the Upper Gardens are completely free. But if you exit the Lower Park to enter the Upper Gardens, you can't get back into the Lower Park without buying another ticket, which is why we'd left it until last. The Upper Gardens turned out to be flatter and more... gardeny There were some wonderful fountains here too, though. This one was particularly imposing Meanwhile this one was a little bit creepy! At least, if you don't like fish. Once we got to the far end of the Upper Gardens, we emerged out onto the main road in the town of Petergof. We knew there was a station here, called Novy Petergof, and we began to navigate our way towards that. It turned out to be a longer walk than expected! A system of suburban trains passes through the station, running into the Baltiysky station in the centre of St Petersburg. There were machines to purchase tickets at the station, but it was a bit confusing because we were trying to buy tickets on platform one, but the only timetable shown here was in the opposite direction to St Petersburg. I bought us tickets for the elektrichka train, which seemed an absolute bargain at 60 rubles each (72p!). However, when we eventually found the correct platform on the opposite side of the tracks, I realised that these tickets weren't valid on the next train arriving at 16.54 because it was a "lastochka" train. Not entirely sure what the difference is; it seems like the lastochka trains make fewer stops so are probably more expensive. The first train our tickets were valid on was 17.12, so we had to hang around until then. I experimented with an americano from the station coffee machine, which was once again a bargain at 35 rubles (42p!), but was very sugary. It helped pass the time until the train arrived anyway! The platform got quite busy, but when the train eventually did come we managed to manoeuvre our way on and get seats. It felt like it was quite an old train and the seats were very hard and wooden. It made its way very slowly towards St Petersburg, eventually arriving at the Baltiysky station around 6pm. After that, all that remain was a metro journey back to our hotel. It was rush hour though so the metro was a bit of a crush. We had done a lot of walking today so decided to eat in the hotel restaurant. There was a slightly confusing incident when we ordered a bottle of chardonnay and brought it to us, then reappeared a few minutes later to say that he couldn't sell it to us because it wasn't in the system. Several of us ordered chicken kievs, which felt like they should have been a safe bet food-wise, so it was slightly disappointing when it arrived to find there was more dill in it than garlic It was a slightly frustrating end to what has otherwise been a really lovely day!
  9. Today was our first proper day exploring St Petersburg. It started off with an exploration of the hotel breakfast buffet, which turned out to be for more extensive than any of us had anticipated. As well as the normal things you would expect, there was salty(!) porridge, pancakes which tasted somewhat like they had been deep fried, and an entire buffet table of cakes. It felt slightly unbelievable that so much breakfast was included in the price of our rooms, which already seem such good value! After breakfast we had time for a quick consultation of guidebooks and maps before we headed out to see the city. Unfortunately the weather wasn't forecast to be great today, so there was a somewhat cloudy sky behind the beautiful red church which we'd spotted yesterday. It was Sunday morning and we could hear the church bells ringing really loudly. Then we realised that we could actually see two men inside the bell tower ringing the bells! We stood watching them for ages It looked like really hard work! We passed all kinds of amazing churches and buildings as we carried on walking through the town. Sometimes we just couldn't work out what they were. This beautiful building, which we found while walking through a park, was the Russian Museum. We were headed towards one of St Petersburg's most iconic churches, the Church of The Saviour on Spilled Blood. Unfortunately part of it was under renovation, but it was still really stunning. The church was constructed on the spot where the Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by anarchists in 1881. The building ceased to be used as a church during the twentieth century, being used alternately as a morgue for those who died in the Siege of Leningrad, as a warehouse for potatoes and vegetables, and today as a museum. We were going to go inside, but either we were too early and it wasn't opened yet or it was being used for a church service because today was a Sunday. Either way, we couldn't get in and there was just a large queue in front of the closed ticket desks. It didn't matter though, when the exterior was so beautiful Unfortunately the weather started to take a turn for the worse at this point and things started to become a bit damp. We took shelter inside a bookshop in the very unusual building to the left of the fountain in the picture below. By the time we'd finished browsing books, the weather had cleared up a bit, but not completely. We found that we were close to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan. As it was still raining a bit, we decided to go in and have a look. Because it was a Sunday morning there was a service ongoing, which was fascinating to see. There was lots of incense and singing and kissing of icons, and because there were no pews it felt quite anarchic, with people coming and going, walking around as they pleased. At least that meant it was easier for us not to be too conspicuous as tourists! The interior of the church was beautiful as well, but no photos were allowed. The day began to brighten up as we walked down Nevsky Prospect towards the Winter Palace. It was amazing to be standing in front of such a historic place On the opposite side of the square from the palace is the General Staff building, with its huge triumphal arch. The arch commemorates the Russian victory over Napoleonic France in 1812. We didn't want to go into the museum which the Winter Palace now houses today, but we were able to go a bit further into the courtyard where the ticket office is. It was really beautiful in there too The next item on our list after the palace was the Admiralty building. We walked through a small park until we found it, topped by this amazing gold spire. If we'd approached it from this direction with the fountain in front, the first view would have been even more impressive There was just one more thing we wanted to see before we went to get some lunch; the Bronze Horseman. This is the famous statue of Peter the Great, commissioned by Catherine the Great. By this point we were down by the river. As we were feeling hungry, we decided to walk back towards Nevsky Prospect. On the way, we got some great views of another huge church; St Isaac's Cathedral. We found a restaurant and sat down to have lunch, with varying degrees of success. I had some pasta, which was very nice, but other people ended up with soup which seemed to just be a bowl of water with vegetables in it. It was better than nothing, and soon we were off again, en route to a boat trip which we had booked for 3pm. We had some difficulty locating the exact part of the Fontanka river that the boat was supposed to be depart from. We asked a lady, who sent us off across a bridge to a boat on the opposite side of the river, only to be told there that we needed to go back across the bridge to where we'd started. We got there in the end, with a few minutes to spare before our boat set off The boat started off by cruising down the Fontanka, and we had some wonderful views of the buildings lining it Then the boat moved out onto the main Neva, and for a minute it was slightly scary as the river was so choppy. The boat couldn't do its full route today because the water level was too high for it to fit under all the bridges. We sailed past all kinds of interesting sights, helpfully explained to us by an English audioguide. One of the most spectacular things was definitely sailing past the Winter Palace It would have been nice to be here on a sunnier day, but the views were wonderful regardless. Too soon, we were back to where we had started! When we got off the boat, we had a tantalising view of a church with an amazing blue roof in the distance. We didn't get to the blue church, but on our way towards a metro station we did stumble across another church with beautiful golden onion domes. When we got to the metro, the station itself was quite impressive. And, of course, the escalators were very, very long! We'd taken the metro to Lenin Square, which is next to Finlandsky station. This is the station at which Lenin arrived back in Russia after his exile abroad, in order to take control of the Russian revolution. In front of the station there's a square with a huge statue of Lenin. While we were standing there, admiring the statue and the fountains, we were approached by a man who asked whether we wanted to join a Communist walking tour. We decided to give it a miss As we went back into the metro station to catch the train home, we found a mosaic of Lenin too. After a brief rest at the hotel, we went back out again in the evening to find something to eat. That proved to be a bit difficult, as there aren't loads of restaurants in the area around our hotel. Dad had googled and found a restaurant nearby on the internet, but we struggled to track in down and then when we eventually did, it looked like it was somewhere designed for people a bit younger and cooler than us. We were so hungry we decided to brave it anyway though and it was a good decision, because the food turned out to be really nice. Again, it seemed unbelievably cheap; we all had a main course and drinks, including a bottle of wine, for what worked out as just over £6 each It's been a very exciting. though somewhat tiring, first day in St Petersburg
  10. Our first week-long holiday this year is one that has required an awful lot of planning. Hours of research, hours more attempting to learn a rather difficult language, plus a visit to London to be finger-printed for a visa. Our holidays aren't normally quite so challenging, but this isn't just any holiday; this is our first ever trip to Russia! And it's not just Tim and I travelling alone this time; joining us are my parents and my sister, Helen The journey for Tim and I started this morning at around 4.45 when we left home to drive to Heathrow. I was quite looking forward to the journey, on the basis that it ought to feel significantly shorter than our journey to Gatwick last weekend, but unfortunately that turned out not to be the case. There had been some sort of accident on the M1, which resulted in traffic jams, lane closures and ultimately us having to leave the motorway entirely to circumvent it. And then when we finally got to the general vicinity of Heathrow, the SatNav failed to take us to the correct location for the airport parking, so we had some fun and games driving around in circles trying to locate it. My family arrived at Heathrow ahead of us, having travelled down the night before, but we eventually all managed to meet up in Wetherspoons and have breakfast together before it was time to board our flight. Everything went remarkably smoothly with the flight, compared to the delay when we flew to Kiev last week. At over three hours it felt like quite a long flight to us, although the pilot referred to it as "a short hop to St Petersburg"! As we began to come in to land, we got our first view of the city and initial impressions were that it looks absolutely enormous! We landed slightly ahead of schedule and got off the plane to go through passport control. This was the most nerve-wracking part of the day, waiting to see whether our visas were correct and we were actually going to be let in But in the end it was all really straightforward. We got our passports stamped, were given our immigration cards (which we mustn't lose if we want to be allowed out of the country again!) and then we were in. Phew!!! We retrieved our bags without any problems and emerged into arrivals. St Petersburg airport is a bit outside the city and it isn't on a trainline, so we needed to catch a bus towards the nearest metro station. There was a bus waiting when we stepped outside, which was good, although we weren't 100% sure how we were supposed to buy tickets. There was a conductor lady who appeared to be selling them, so we assumed we needed to give her our money before we sat down, and it was all a bit difficult trying to hold our luggage, get some money out and figure out how much we needed to pay. Afterwards, we realised that we could just have got on and sat down and she would have come to sell us a ticket. Never mind! The good news was that the fare was amazingly cheap at 40 rubles each, which translate to 48p! The less good news was that it turned out to be a bus without a luggage rack, so we had to balance our luggage in somewhat uncomfortable positions for the duration of the trip. Luckily, the journey turned out to be quicker than I'd expected and it can't have taken more than 20 minutes for us to get from the airport to the metro. The metro was slightly more expensive at 45 rubles (54p!). We bought tokens from a machine and then made our way down to the platform. It was a very unusual metro station, in that you couldn't see the track at all from the platform; it was hidden away behind big metal doors, which opened once the train arrived. We had about five stops to travel on our first metro, after which we had to change to a different line and go another few stops before we got to the vicinity of our hotel. Considering it was our first day in Russia and we only had a vague idea of what we were supposed to be doing, it all went rather well I'd tried to download an offline map of St Petersburg to help us navigate, but when I got my phone out it seemed to assume I wanted a map of a place called St Petersburg in Florida instead, which was a bit frustrating! Luckily it didn't matter, because there was a map on the wall of the metro station, and Tim and Dad managed to navigate us to the hotel using that. The hotel is posher than we expected and comes complete with a slightly disconcerting porter, who insisted on carrying our bags for us. We managed to check in, half in Russian and half in English, and the porter led us to our rooms. We definitely can't complain about how spacious this is; we've even got our own sofa! And all for less than £60/night Once we'd unpacked and settled in, we went for an initial stroll into the town. The first interesting thing we came to as we left our hotel was this beautiful yellow church. It turns out this is the Transfiguration Cathedral. We didn't have to walk much further before we caught sight of another colourful church on the horizon. I'm not sure what this one is called, but it was a really beautiful shade of red We were walking in this direction because we wanted to get to the river. Before we reached the main river Neva, we crossed over the smaller Fontanka river, which is a branch of the Neva. The sides of the river were lined with pretty buildings... ...and the river itself was full of boats We found ourselves in the Summer Garden, which was founded by Peter the Great. It seemed like a lovely park, but it was really busy; there seemed to be some sort of festival for children going on. We walked down a long avenue of trees... ...and admired the various statues we found on our way. There were fountains too Eventually, we emerged from the park and we were at the river It was huge and looked really choppy; more like the sea! Everyone was hungry by this point - and the porter had warned us against going out in the evening without coats - so we decided to retrace our steps back towards the hotel. On the way, we passed Peter the Great's Summer Palace from the opposite side of the water. We also got tantalising glimpses of all kinds of other interesting buildings in the distance. There will definitely be lots to explore tomorrow! In the meantime, we all needed an early night. But not before we'd had dinner in the hotel restaurant. It turned out to be unbelievably good value; five of us had a main course and a drink for the equivalent of £30 I'm sure we will find ourselves in more expensive places over the course of the next week, but at about £1 each for transport and £6 each for food, today has been a very cheap day!
  11. Clare

    Day 3: Kiev

    Another day, another breakfast! Today's was remarkably similar to yesterday's, except for the fact that my pancakes were filled with forest fruits rather than cherries. Our flight wasn't until 20.05 this evening, so we had another full day in Kiev. Once we'd checked out of the apartment, we set off to explore a part of the city which we had only seen from a distance yesterday; the Motherland monument. Our route took us along some of the streets we had followed yesterday, passing the war and famine memorials. We also passed the monastery which we had visited yesterday afternoon. Before long we got our first glimpse of the statue which we were walking to see. The statue is part of the national museum of the history of Ukraine in the Second World War, and as we walked towards the statue we passed by all sorts of guns and armoured vehicles. We also had views back towards the golden roofs of the monastery. The closer you get to the statue, the more apparent it becomes how absolutely huge it is. The scale is quite well demonstrated in comparison to this guy mowing the grass! We entered the museum complex and walked past a series of sculptures depicting the defence of the Soviet border from German invasion. Some of them were rather scary! Others showed the peasants assisting with the war effort. When we emerged at the front of the statue, we found another large monument which depicted the Battle of the Dnieper in 1943. From here we had the best view of the statue. The entire structure is over 100 metres tall! Apparently you can climb part of the way to the top, but we decided to give it a miss! Instead we strolled around the park, enjoying the views back towards the monastery.... ...and particularly the views of the bell tower which we had climbed yesterday Afterwards, we decided to retrace our steps from yesterday and walk back into the centre of Kiev. We walked through the shady Mariyinsky Park... ...stopping to admire the palace again. From there we made our way towards the main square, Maidan Nezaleznosti. It was so much quieter here today than it had been yesterday! We had an unobstructed view of this monument to the founders of Kiev. We didn't take any photos, but the square and the surrounding area where full of little stalls selling souvenirs and the most popular souvenir on sale appeared to be a roll of toilet paper with Vladimir Putin's face on it Once we'd finished looking around the square, it was time to find somewhere to have lunch. This probably wasn't the cheapest part of town, but with Ukrainian prices it didn't really matter! I had a huge pizza, with a glass of Georgian wine. I've never tried Georgian wine before and it's main feature seemed to be that it was really, really strong! It smelled more like rakija than wine and Tim couldn't even bring himself to try it, deciding to stick with beer instead Tim had ordered his meal off the basis of a picture we'd seem outside and the menu. When it came (about 20 minutes after my pizza!), it was complete with a rather alarming piece of purple cabbage. Once we'd finished lunch we went back through the square. On the opposite side of the road there was a monument which gave the distances to different cities around the world from Kiev. London was 2 135km away! We walked back in the direction of St Michael's monastery to have a better look. We'd been rushing past here yesterday because we were late, so hadn't taken many photos. From here it wasn't far back to St Andrew's church, which was definitely one of my favourites yesterday. Today we were able to enjoy the views with far fewer people around There was just time for a final view out over Kiev before we needed to head back towards the train station to catch our bus to the airport. It was Kiev's rush hour by this point and the bus took twice as long to get to the airport as it had on Saturday evening. That, combined with the queue at passport control, meant that we ran out of time to finish the blog at the airport. That slight annoyance aside, we had a really great weekend in Kiev It's an exciting place with lots to see and our accommodation definitely made this visit a lot more comfortable an experience than our first trip in 2011
  12. Tim

    Day 2: Kiev

    As usual, I hadn't updated the time, so we really arrived home at 18:17, a full eight hours after we'd left!
  13. Clare

    Day 2: Kiev

    When we checked into the hotel last night, we had to choose our breakfast from a picture menu. The options all looked much of a muchness, the main difference being whether you wanted your eggs scrambled or fried. We made a split second decision and asked if we could have it at 9am, but by the time it got to this morning I wasn't entirely sure what it was we were going to receive. 9am came around and our door bell rang - breakfast was being delivered to us! It looked... interesting. I definitely don't remember there being so much greenery in the photos on the menu! Once my salad was safely in the bin, I was left with some very dry sort of bread, scrambled egg which had a very odd feathery herb through it and what was allegedly sausage, but tasted more like a hot dog. The pancakes were nice; mine were stuffed with cherries and drizzled with chocolate sauce, although one of them was slightly contaminated by the unnecessary slices of orange. At least the coffee was good Once we'd eaten what we could of breakfast, we set out to explore Kiev. Not far from our hotel we found the Mariyinsky Palace, which is the official home of the president of Ukraine. The building with the big dome next to the palace is the Ukrainian parliament. There were armed police on guard outside. When you get closer to the building, you can't see the dome any more. Across the road we found what looked like another large government building. This one caught our attention because it had the EU flag flying outside it as well as the Ukrainian one! From here we began to walk into the centre of the town, towards the main square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti. Unfortunately, when we got here we found it was rather busy! There was some sort of festival going on in Kiev today and it seemed to involve a marathon or something similar. There were thousands of people in the square getting ready to take part in a race. We just about managed to push our way through the square, resolving to come back tomorrow when it would (hopefully!) be emptier and take proper photos then. We walked down what seemed like a main shopping street, before coming to a place which looked familar... but different. This is where the statue of Lenin used to stand before it was toppled in December 2013. This is what it looked like when we were here in 2011. We walked uphill, towards Kiev's university, which is based in this rather striking red building. Behind us was a park and statue dedicated to the Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko. We had come in this direction in search of a church which I remembered from our previous visit. This is St Volodymyr's Cathedral. It's a beautiful yellow building. I particularly love the blue roofs on the little towers We walked all the way around it to get the best views From the cathedral we walked through a square... ...and came to a little road where there were people in national costume, singing. We were now standing outside the Golden Gate. This is the site of the original gate into the 11th century fortifications of Kiev. The gate was dismantled in the Middle Ages and rebuilt in 1982 for the 1500th anniversary of Kiev. The large statue outside the gate is of Yaroslav the Wise. From here it wasn't far to St Sophia's Cathedral. I remembered its beautiful blue bell tower from last time we were here. In the square outside the cathedral, Tim paid 20 hryvnia (60p) to have his photo taken with these rather odd-looking doves. They sat on his shoulders... ...and his head Meanwhile I was on the other side of the square, taking photos of the bell tower The square itself is very pretty... and you can see lots of little domes in the cathedral complex behind the walls. In the other direction, we could also make out St Michael's Golden-Domed monastery. There's certainly no shortage of striking churches in Kiev. We didn't have to walk much further before we found St Andrew's. The church is surrounded by a park, from where we got tantalising glimpses of it through the trees. Nearby we stumbled across a sculpture park, which looked like it wouldn't have been out of place in Barcelona Some of the sculptures were really cute... ...while others were slightly more bizarre! As we left the sculpture park, we had a beautiful view back towards St Andrew's church. We began to follow a path that led downwards... ...giving views of some very impressive buildings, some of which seemed to be embassies. We reached a viewpoint from which we could see out over the city. I really loved these colourful roofs The path then became increasingly busy and it felt like the entire population of Kiev had chosen the same place to have a Sunday walk We managed to push our way through the crowds and eventually emerged at the base of the church again. It was around 2pm now and we were running late, because we were supposed to be meeting our Esperanto friend Kalle, who we last met in Malmo, at 2.30 outside the Arsenalna metro station. We were about a 50-minute walk from there at the moment, so needed to find a metro station if we stood any chance of not being completely late. As we could see from this viewpoint next to the church, Kiev is huge and finding a metro station wasn't necessarily going to be straightforward. Having consulted the map, we decided that the best bet would be head back to Maidan Nezalezhnosti. On the way, we got a better view of St Michael's Monastery. From here it wasn't far to the square, but once we got to the square it took a while to find the metro station because everywhere was still so busy with the festival/marathon thing. The Maidan metro station was on line number 2 and Arsenalna is on line number 1. When we consulted the metro map, we thought we could go one stop on line 2 and then change to line 1, but once we got down to the platforms that turned out not to be the case (as in, the station we wanted to go to wasn't listed as one of the stops), so we were quite confused. In the end we had to go back above ground, walk to a different station on line 1 and take the metro to Arsenalna from there. By the time we arrived we were a good 30 minutes late, although almost 10 minutes of those had been spent on escalators trying to get out of Arsenalna Luckily Kalle had waited for us! We had lunch together in the restaurant of this rather Soviet-looking hotel on the left of the picture. For lunch we had pelmeni, little dumplings filled with minced meat. They tasted a bit like ravioli After lunch, we set off to explore some of the surrounding area. Not far from Arsenalna is a memorial park which commemorates the victims of famine in Ukraine. The obelisk commemorates victims of WW2 and there's an eternal flame burning underneath it. The candle-shaped monument is dedicated to famine victims. Millions of people in Ukraine died of starvation between 1932 - 1933, as a result of Soviet collectivisation policies. We were walking through the memorial park on our way to one of Kiev's most famous sites: the Pechersk Lavra monastery. We bought tickets and passed through the main gate, to be confronted with a large silver egg (no idea what it was for!) and our first glimpse of the Dormition Cathedral. The cathedral was originally built in the 11th century, but destroyed during WW2. It was restored in 1995, following Ukrainian independence. The other striking building inside the monastery was this huge bell tower. We bought tickets to climb to the top. There weren't actually as many steps as I was expecting, and before too long we made it to the first balcony. We were able to look down at the cathedral And we could see for miles out across Kiev... ...including getting a great view of the Motherland statue, which we remembered from our previous visit to Kiev. We climbed a bit higher, to the part of the tower where the bells were. The views were great from here as well. And Kalle took a rare photo of us together Then it was time to climb back down. Underneath the bell tower was the grave of Pyotr Stolypin, the Russian minister who was assassinated in Kiev in 1911. We strolled around the monastery for a bit longer, enjoying the wonderful views. Then there was just time for some coffee and cake, before we went our separate ways By the time we got back to the hotel we were both exhausted. Tim's Fitbit shows we got quite a few steps today!!
  14. As I mentioned in the blog about Cinque Terre, we've really struggled to find cheap flights for bank holidays this year. We struggled in particular with the second May bank holiday, which seemed to be more expensive than the first one; probably because it coincides with school half terms. After a lot of research, the only place to which I managed to find what I would describe as a truly cheap flight was Kiev, from Gatwick with Ukraine International Airlines. Could we go to Kiev for a weekend? It felt like potentially a very long journey for a short trip, but then we are the people who went all the way to Tenerife for a weekend in 2017 More to the point, did we want to go to Kiev for a weekend? We spent a very memorable week in Kiev in 2011 when we attended an international Esperanto youth conference. The event itself was very badly organised and the quality of the accommodation was absolutely dreadful, so Kiev hadn't necessarily been high on our list of places we wanted to return to. But I remembered the city itself as being beautiful, and I figured that if we were able to stay in a proper hotel that had luxuries like power sockets and curtains this time, we might enjoy the experience more. I decided to go ahead and book Our flight today wasn't until around midday, so we had a rather relaxed start to the trip by our normal standards, not leaving home until after 7am. Gatwick wasn't as busy as I thought it might be considering it was school holidays, and by around 10.30 we were sitting in Wetherspoons enjoying a large breakfast. Gate information for our flight was given at 11.30 and it seemed like everything was going to be plain sailing. Until we got to the gate, that is. First of all there seemed to be a delay with boarding. Then when boarding was announced, the staff were trying to get people to board based on row order, but some of the passengers struggled to understand this and chaos ensued, with people queuing up with their boarding passes and then being sent to the back of the queue if they had the wrong row numbers. We made it onto the plane eventually and were pleasantly surprised to find that it was quite spacious and comfortable. Tim even managed to fit his bag in the overhead lockers for a change It's a good job that the plane was comfortable, because it turned out that we were going to be sitting on it for a long time. The cabin crew began to make the usual announcements - firstly in Ukrainian, then repeated in English and Russian - but then the plane just sat on the runway and didn't move. Eventually the pilot made an announcement to say that our departure was going to be delayed by at least an hour because of air traffic congestion over Poland That was rather unexpected! We sat there and we sat there and we sat there. In the end it was around 14.30 before the plane took off, which was over two hours late. How frustrating! It was already a long flight (3 hours) so this meant it was going to be pretty late by the time we finally landed in Kiev, especially taking into account the fact that Ukraine is two hours ahead of the UK. The weather was good for most of the journey, but the view wasn't very exciting as we flew over incredibly flat Polish and Ukrainian countryside. It was only as we began coming in to land around 3 hours later that we got an interesting view of the enormous river Dnieper that runs through Kiev. We could see lots of islands in the middle of the river Once we'd landed we had to get through passport control. This gave us a vision of our post-Brexit future, as we had to join an "All passports" queue and wait in line behind all kinds of nationalities, some of whom seemed to be getting very tough questioning by the Ukrainian border staff. Some people were led off in separate directions to be questioned, while others had to have their fingerprints recorded, so I was slightly apprehensive by the time we got to the front of the queue! Luckily our passports didn't seem to present any problems; the border guard just asked if I'd come from London, stamped my passport and waved me through. Phew! Next step was to acquire some Ukrainian currency. You can't buy hryvnia in the UK, so we had brought Euros with us to change. The arrivals hall was home to some sophisticated looking machines where it looked like you could feed in Euros and get hryvnia in return. We were just in the process of trying to figure out how to use one of these when we got accosted by a random man. To start with we couldn't understand what he was saying, but it transpired that he ran a small stall nearby and said he would give a better exchange rate than the machine. His rate was indeed slightly better, and so we changed 40 Euros. All that remained now was to find our way into central Kiev. You can travel into the city centre by train, but when I researched it the timetable seemed quite infrequent. The other option is to take the airport bus, and we were luckily that we stepped out of the terminal building and saw one waiting right in front of us. The fare was 100 hryvnia (about £3) which seemed quite good value. As we drove out of the airport and along the main road into town, guess what one of the first things I saw was?! The bus took us across the river and towards the main train station. From there, we needed to find the Vokzalna metro station and catch the metro to a station called Arsenalna. The metro in Kiev is an absolute bargain, with a token for a single journey costing 8 hryvnia (24p!!!). We tried to buy tokens at a machine but it didn't work, so we had to go to the ticket desk instead. The lady behind the counter didn't look terribly impressed that we were trying to buy two tokens with a 100 hryvnia note. The metro in Kiev is incredibly deep underground and this means that the escalators are enormous. As in, you get on the escalator and it's so big you can't see the other end of it. Arsenalna, where we were getting off, is the deepest metro station in the world according to our guidebook. It certainly felt like it; we came up one long escalator, assumed we were at the top, then found there was a second equally long one still to go! The aparthotel we are staying in is only a few hundred metres from Arsenalna station. By the time we emerged from the metro, darkness had fallen so it was a little bit harder to find it than I expected, but we got there in the end (and just about managed to check in in Russian!). When we stayed in Kiev in 2011, our room looked like this: Our bedroom this time around is considerably nicer In fact, we have a choice of two bedrooms in case we fall out And we have a little kitchen too It's worked out at about £60/night and that includes breakfast as well, so it feels like pretty good value It's a lovely apartment but overall it's been a rather tiring day of travelling! Let's hope that we get to see more of Kiev tomorrow
  15. When we woke up this morning and looked out the window, we were relieved to see that the weather seemed to be a bit brighter When we went to the viewpoint round the corner, we could see Manarola much more clearly than yesterday... ...and we could just make out what we thought was Monterosso in the distance as well. We went to the same cafe as yesterday to have breakfast... ...and then set off down the stairs towards the train station in Corniglia. In the sunshine, the views were even more spectacular than they had been yesterday. We got almost halfway down the stairs when we were passed by some girls climbing upward. They explained that they had got to the bottom and been turned away by a man who said that the path was closed for works and they needed to go around on the road. So they were having to climb all the way back up to the top again to find the road! We weren't terribly impressed by the thought of having to climb back up all the way that we had just come down, but on the other hand it was better to have to climb up a part of the stairs then get right to the bottom and be told to turn around again, so we followed the girls back up to the top of the staircase. Sure enough, when we got there we found a workman sealing the entrance to the stairs off with red tape. Luckily he didn't object to us climbing underneath it to get out! We walked down to the station via the main road and bought another Cinque Terre day pass for the trains. We had had an alternative plan for today which involved visiting a nearby town called Portovenere, but when we saw that the weather was so good we couldn't resist the temptation to try and re-do the villages which we had seen yesterday, in the sunshine this time Our first stop was the northernmost village of Monterosso. As soon as we arrived, it was obvious that it was considerably busier here than it had been yesterday. The sea definitely looked a lot calmer today. In fact, it was so calm that someone seemed to be climbing on this rock which we had seen the waves lashing yesterday morning. We walked along the seafront, towards the centre of the village. Everything looked a lot better with the backdrop of a bright blue sky. Without the rain, we were able to explore a bit more of the village, and found this beautiful stripy church. We had to be careful not to spend too long in each village though, if we were going to fit them all in before we needed to catch a train towards the airport at around 2pm. So soon it was time to say goodbye to Monterosso... ...and hop on a train towards our next destination: Vernazza. Vernazza looked stunning in the sunshine too We walked out towards the harbour to get the best view back towards the town. The sea seemed incredibly peaceful compared to yesterday. Believe it or not, this was the point from which Tim got splashed by his wave yesterday It was tempting to spend longer in Vernazza, but we had more villages to see! Our intention had been to go to Manarola next, but when we got to the station we found that the train we needed was delayed. Rather than lose time waiting for it, we decided to jump on an express train which didn't stop in Manarola, but went straight through to the southernmost village, Riomaggiore. We had been absolutely soaking wet by the time we got to Riomaggiore yesterday. Today felt very different. It was a lot easier climbing up the steep main street when there wasn't water pouring down it We explored the village for a while... ...and then headed back to the station. Believe it or not, this was our view from the platform as we waited for our train to Manarola. When we got to Manarola, we decided to be really boring and go to exactly the same place that we had had lunch yesterday. In fact, we even ordered exactly the same meal. But today we remembered to take a photo of the lasagne The reason for going there was not just that the lasagne was amazing, but also that we knew the service was quick and efficient. We didn't have too long left before we needed to start our journey to the airport and we wanted to make the most of it. Manarola was really gorgeous in the sunshine We climbed up to the church tower we'd visited yesterday... ...and were rewarded with the wonderful view back out over the village. Definitely better without the rain! Sadly, then it was time to start heading back down to the station, because we needed to catch a train to La Spezia. From there we were due to make a connection to Pisa, which is where we're flying back from this evening. We'd calculated it so that we just had enough time to change in Pisa... and then our train to La Spezia was delayed, with no explanation or apology. We had a nervous few minutes in the station as we waited for it, wondering whether we were going to get to La Spezia on time to make our second train. It was a close-run thing, but we made it with about a minute to spare and were soon on our way towards Pisa airport. Phew! The weather yesterday might not have been quite what we would have ordered, but overall we have had a wonderful long weekend in Italy. The views were fantastic even in the rain, but it was brilliant to be able to return to the same places today and see them in the sunshine too
  16. We didn't get woken up by church bells this morning, but once we were awake we could hear a loud noise in the distance. Could it be the sound of waves crashing on the cliffs? We opened the shutters, and sure enough the weather outside had definitely taken a turn for the worse overnight. The water was completely white and there were some enormous waves in the sea! Although the sky looked dark, it didn't actually appear to be raining though. We went to the viewpoint around the corner from where we were staying. The sky wasn't clear, but we could just make out one of the other Cinque Terre villages (Manarola) in the distance. Time for breakfast! As our room is quite basic, it's not even possible to make coffee there so we needed to find a cafe. Luckily in Italy that isn't normally too difficult, and we were soon eating warm pain au chocolat and drinking americanos Our plan for today was to visit all five of the Cinque Terre villages. Obviously we were starting off in Corniglia, which is the middle village. That meant we needed to decide whether to first travel south, towards Manarola and Riomaggiore, or north towards Vernazza and Monterosso. But before we could go anywhere, we needed to climb down the steps to Corniglia's train station. It was a long way down! There were some beautiful views on the way, though And with time, the train tracks became a little closer. As you can see from this picture, the villages are perched so precariously above the sea that they are completely inaccessible by road. Instead, they are linked by the train line and by a series of footpaths. Today didn't feel like weather for a hike though, so we were definitely taking the train We found it rather amusing that at the bottom of the steps, there is a sign advertising a pharmacy at the top I suspect some people might well be in need of it when they get to the top! We'd pretty much decided that we were going to travel south, when we got to the train station and found there was a train about to arrive heading north. We made a quick change of plan, and within a couple of minutes we were exiting the train in Vernazza. First impressions were that it immediately seemed bigger (and flatter!) than Corniglia. We strolled down the main street, where there were some beautifully colourful houses... ...and we soon found a tiny archway in the rock, through which we could see the sea. Vernazza is one of the villages that is right down at sea level, which means it has suffered with flooding in the past. When we got down to the harbour, it wasn't hard to see why! We stood and watched some truly enormous waves in the harbour. Tim got a little bit over-excited about the waves and decided to go nearer for a better view. That was a decision which he soon came to regret Let's just say he ended up rather damp! It wasn't really surprising with waves like this! We turned around and walked back towards the centre of the village. It was really pretty, with lots of brightly coloured houses... and narrow alleyways. It was starting to drizzle by this point, so we decided to go back to the station and get on the train to the most northerly village, Monterosso. We had bought Cinque Terre cards for today which enabled us to jump on and off the trains as many times as we wanted, which was good. Less good was the weather, which had deteriorated into proper rain by the time we got to Monterosso. As we left the station, we had a wonderful view back down the coast in the direction we'd just come. Unfortunately it's not very clear in the photo, but if you look carefully you might be able to see a blob which is Vernazza at the foot of one of the hills. And if you look even more carefully, you might see a faint blob on the top of a smaller hill towards the right of this photo, which is Corniglia. The coastline in the opposite direction looked beautiful too. It must be amazing on a sunny day Today was still decidedly damp, though. Monterosso is one of the bigger villages, and I think the only one which has a proper beach. The guidebook had described it as "tacky", but that didn't really seem to be the case. There was a large central square, with a big clock tower. We explored for a while but it really was quite wet, so we decided to head back towards the train station. Sitting on a warm, dry train felt like quite an attractive prospect, so we decided to stay on until we reached the southernmost Cinque Terre village: Riomaggiore. Riomaggiore was a bit wet too! There were some lovely buildings though And a steep main street, with views up towards a tower on the hill behind. Again, on a sunny day it must be amazing We thought about getting lunch here in the hope of having some time to dry off, but we were a bit too early for Italian standards. So we got back on the train to travel to the fifth village: Manarola. Manarola wasn't any drier! We climbed upwards towards a church tower on the hill... ...with views up towards brightly coloured houses as we went. The church itself wasn't particularly photogenic... ...but from the far side of the church tower, there were some fantastic views of Manarola. I could see why this one is described as being one of the prettiest Cinque Terre villages After we'd enjoyed the views, we climbed back down into the main village. This time we managed to find a restaurant with indoor seating and enjoyed some amazing lasagne (which we forgot to take a photo of!) and half a litre of some local wine I had hoped it might magically dry up while we were eating, but it didn't! So all that remained was for us to get a train back along the coast to our home village of Corniglia This time we chickened out of the steps and took the little local shuttle bus up the hill towards our accommodation, where we began the much-needed process of drying out Today hasn't quite been the weather I'd hoped for in Cinque Terre, but it is a really beautiful part of the world regardless
  17. Over the years we've been booking overseas trips for bank holidays, the concept of a cheap flight seems to have disappeared. We started looking at the May 2019 bank holiday weekends back in October 2018 when flights first came on sale, but even then we were struggling to find anything that truly looked like a bargain. The best we could find for this weekend turned out to be a British Airways flight from Gatwick to Genoa. We didn't know a lot about Genoa, except that it was in the Liguria region of Italy which we'd never been to before. After a bit of online research, I established that going to Genoa would enable us to explore some of the Cinque Terre villages, which I'd seen amazing pictures of online. We decided to give it a go The flight this morning was at 08.45 which doesn't sound too early, but still necessitated us setting our alarms for 03.30 this morning. Happily there isn't much traffic on the roads at that time of the morning, so we got to Gatwick without any difficulties and with plenty of time to get breakfast before our flight. I can't say a lot about the flight, because I fell asleep over the Channel and only woke up on time to see the tail end of the Alps We landed in Genoa shortly after that, disappointed to see that everywhere looked just as cloudy as the weather forecast had predicted. Our airport bus wasn't until 12.30, so we had a bit of time waiting around. The airport isn't very far outside Genoa, but it had been a bit confusing trying to research the best way to get into the town centre, as the dreadful bridge collapse last year means that there's still a fair amount of traffic disruption. The congestion today didn't seem as bad as the internet had suggested though and when it eventually arrived, the airport bus got us into the town centre quite efficiently, dropping us off outside the main train station, Piazza Principe. We didn't know a lot about Genoa except that it's a large port, and first impressions were not very scenic. The route from the airport to the station seemed quite industrial, and we could see several large cruise ships sitting in the port. Of course, one of the other things which Genoa is famous for is being the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, and it didn't take long to find a huge monument to him outside the station. We didn't have a lot of time to spend in Genoa because of a complication with our accommodation. I'd booked a room for us to stay in Corniglia, one of the Cinque Terre villages, and after I'd paid for it I got an email from the owner explaining that we would have to check in before 5pm, because she couldn't stay any later than that to give us the key. As we needed to catch a couple of trains to get from Genoa to Corniglia, the train timetables meant that we'd have to leave Genoa at 14.45 in order to get there on time. I booked the train tickets in advance on the Trenitalia website, to save time buying them today... and then I got another email from the owner saying that she couldn't meet us for check-in after all, but that she would leave the keys in a key safe. So we actually could have spent longer in Genoa! But as I'd already bought the tickets, we figured we'd stick with the original plan and do a bit of a whistle-stop tour. As we followed signs from the station to the historic centre, we were glad to find some places that looked more picturesque than the port We walked through an enormous gate into the old town. Inside the gate we followed a series of tiny little streets... ...which became increasingly dark and narrow. It actually felt a bit claustrophic at times; a real rabbit warren. I don't think you would want to get lost down here on a dark night! Every so often we got a glimpses of interesting churches. And sometimes we emerged into pretty little squares. Eventually we came to the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, Genoa's cathedral. It was enormous, and made of beautiful stripy stone. After that we seemed to be on a roll for finding beautiful churches There was this yellow one with a big dome... ...this one with a very unusual tiled roof... ...and this one, which looks like it has seen better days, but does at least demonstrate that the day had brightened up and it was now properly sunny At least, it was sunny in that direction; it was still a bit cloudy the other way. We were trying to plan our route through the centre so that we ended up near Genoa's second train station, Brignole. We'd done reasonably well following street signs and the map in our guidebook, but by the time we got to this church we couldn't figure out exactly where we were on the map, so had to resort to Google maps for the final part of the journey. We passed through another enormous gate to exit the old town. From here we were right outside Christopher Columbus's house. Or at least, a house which Christopher Columbus allegedly lived in; the guidebook doesn't seem convinced that he actually ever lived in it. We were now in the more modern part of Genoa. We found ourselves in a really pretty square with a fountain. This is Genoa's main square, Piazza De Ferrari. It definitely felt brighter and airier here than in the cramped little streets of the old town We were getting close to the Brignole station now, which was good because it was nearly time for our train. Our first journey, of just over an hour, took us to the small town of Levanto. The route was really scenic, with amazing views of the sea for lots of the journey. And when we arrived in Levanto, it looked like a really pretty place too. We had 15 minutes or so to wait in Levanto, before getting our second train towards Corniglia. This was only a short journey on a small regional train which stops at each of the villages in the Cinque Terre national park. This was the point at which we started getting a feel for how much tourism there is in this region; there were groups of cruise ship passengers being herded on and off the train at each stop. The journey itself was mostly within tunnels, but when we emerged from the station in Corniglia we immediately had a beautiful view of the coast Corniglia is supposed to be the least touristy settlement in the region, because the village itself is set on a hill up above the train station. That means that you have to climb a staircase of 382 steps to get from the station to Corniglia itself and I'm guessing that puts a lot of people off staying here, because this was definitely the only village in which we could afford accommodation The climb was rather tiring but when we stopped for breath there were some wonderful views out over the coast. We could see one of the other Cinque Terre villages in the distance Eventually we made it and followed the instructions we'd been given to track down our accommodation and retrieve the keys from the safe. The room is small, but it does have air-conditioning and allegedly Wi-Fi (we haven't been able to get it to work yet!). The best thing about the room is definitely the view, which is really spectacular Unfortunately the weather doesn't look great for tomorrow, but I'm really pleased that we've been able to see the view with blue sky today After we'd relaxed in the room for a bit, we went out for a stroll to see the village and to get some food. Just a few metres away from where we're staying there's a viewpoint out over the sea. We were able to see down the coast... ...and up towards another little hill-top village. Corniglia itself is really lovely. The streets are narrow, but they lack the ever-so-slightly threatening feel of Genoa There's a small church off the main square which has very loud bells. I'm hoping it doesn't start ringing them early tomorrow morning! We found a restaurant to get pizza, then made the most of the remaining daylight to admire the views again. We think our room must be in one of these buildings clinging to the hillside, but couldn't work out which one. We're looking forward to exploring more of Cinque Terre tomorrow
  18. As we were walking back from the supermarket after doing the blog last night, we hit a new temperature record for this holiday - minus 28! It felt significantly warmer when we stepped out of the apartment this morning, and the thermometer in the village confirmed that it was a comparatively mild minus 14 We just caught a glimpse of the beautiful sunrise as we left the apartment and started walking towards the lake. Our plan for today was to give skiing a go on our own. We carried the (heavy!) skis as far as the sports shop, before getting changed into our ski boots and temporarily leaving our own boots behind in the shop. The advantage of doing it this way was that otherwise we'd have had to have walked all the way to the lake in the ski boots, skied, then carried the skis back to the apartment, changed into our actual boots, and carried the skis back to the shop. This way we could go skiing, then hand the skis back in and collect our own shoes once we'd finished Walking in the ski boots is actually really difficult because they don't have very good grips on them. Crossing the main road and walking through the supermarket carpark were particularly tricky, because the snow is quite compacted and slippy there, but we made it all in one piece and were soon on the lake, ready to begin. Alfie got off to a strong start I needed a bit of time to warm up Alfie was out-performing me and Tim so much that he was soon just a little black dot on the horizon! He may have managed a few more laps than we did We spent a bit of time catching our breath before setting off again. Once we'd skied to the far side of the lake, Alfie and Tim decided to practise their skills at skiing uphill... ...and downhill. Some attempts at going uphill were more successful than others Going downhill wasn't without challenges either! Once we were all thoroughly exhausted, we skied back across the lake, handed back our equipment and indulged in a large amount of pizza By the time we'd finished eating, it had started snowing outside. As we walked back towards the apartment, the snow got increasingly heavy, to the point where we couldn't even see the lake (it's normally visible in the distance here). By the time we got back to the apartment, it felt like a proper blizzard. There was lots of fresh powdery snow on the ground. We were able to walk through the untouched snow to the door of our apartment It was a fun end to what has been a great holiday. Tomorrow will be a long day of travelling, with our first at 10.50 from Kittila and then our second at 17.05 from Helsinki. Lapland is always a destination which involves a lot of travelling, but we definitely think it's worth the effort
  19. It felt very cold when we stepped out of the house this morning, and sure enough once we got to the village thermometer we found it was showing a temperature of minus 23. We were walking towards the frozen lake to try and find a snowshoeing path that we'd seen signposted while we were skiing in the woods the other day. On the way we passed a sign advertising ice swimming in the lake, but we decided to give that a miss and stick with our original plan of snowshoeing instead The lake looked beautiful again in the snow. We put our snowshoes on and then we were ready to set off. Tim's beard had already started to freeze I was looking rather cold too! As we set off across the lake, we could see a slightly pink glow in the sky, although the colours weren't as strong as they had been the other day. After a while we reached the far side of the lake and found the start of the trail, marked by blue poles. The path led us through the trees. The snow was pretty deep here... ...especially if you strayed off the path It was beautiful here, but extremely cold! Tim and Alfie decided that they were too cold and that they wanted to head back to the shopping centre to look for some souvenirs. I decided to carry on on my own and explore some more of the path. Once I was on my own, I may have got slightly carried away taking photos of trees again The further I went, the deeper the snow seemed to be. It definitely wasn't getting any warmer; if you look carefully in this photo you might be able to see the ice on my eyelashes, as well as my white hair The path became narrower... ...before leading up a snowy slope into the forest. Now I really was right between the trees. I was glad of the blue poles; without them it might have been difficult to tell where the path was going. The path continued along a little ridge for a while, but then started to lead quite steeply downhill. I decided I'd better turn back, because I might not get down the slope - or if I did, I might not get back up again I started making my way back towards the lake. It was coming up to 2pm now and so there was an orange glow in the sky... ...and a bit of pink over the big fell in the distance. I tried a sunset selfie As I emerged back out onto the lake, I was excited to see a herd of reindeer crossing the lake. They were quite a long way away, so it was difficult to get a good photo. Once they'd moved off into the trees, I continued on my way and was over halfway across the lake when I saw a single solitary reindeer in the distance. He started getting closer. Was he going to walk towards me? Wow, he literally walked right past me! I've never been as close to a reindeer as this By this stage I was in danger of turning into an icicle, so I headed back towards the supermarket. Tim and Alfie had had a successful shopping trip and discovered that, while we'd been out, the temperature had dropped even lower, hitting minus 25; a record low for this holiday!
  20. 2019 started with a lie-in for me and Alfie because we were going husky-sledding, courtesy of my parents, who treated Alfie to this for Christmas. Clare didn't fancy being a driver, so instead set off snowshoeing in the woods, leaving us behind. There was fresh snow on the ground, which always gives a lovely crunch when you walk on it: For once, we didn't walk in the direction of the supermarket but instead took the opposite turn walking uphill to our bus stop. The scenery is just as pretty: We got there with plenty of time to spare, nearly half an hour before the bus was due. I remember from last time that it's not the easiest bus stop to find but we were there within minutes and awaiting 12:30. We ended up waiting longer; the bus arrived at 12:43, forty minutes after we did, but was still earlier than last year. We boarded and there was only a family of four there. I thought our luck was in! Not quite so. We drove to the main office whereupon the guide explained that we were picking up some more people and that we were free to use the toilet, get a drink and even pick up some equipment. He made a point of suggesting to me that I might quite like to borrow a jumpsuit to protect me from the cold. Clearly he's not aware that this is the man who forswears gloves and a jacket at minus 17 if he's required to do any form of exertion! Alfie asked me how long this was going to take. Theoretically, it shouldn't have taken any time at all; the information on the ticket stated that we would be picked up at 12:30 and that the event would start at 13:00. However, we didn't leave until 13:20, arriving at 13:50. It was a lovely journey, though. We were quickly welcomed off the coach and given our safety instructions. There really wasn't a lot for passengers to learn, other than sit down and keep your extremities within the sled: Drivers had a bit more to learn, including hand signals for stop, go and slow down, and how to brake: We were even further delayed because the safety instructions were being translated into Spanish. I grew a bit restless and had a peek at some typical Sami accommodation: The dogs were all tied up and ready to go: There are 160 dogs at the farm. Although they're there to work, they each have names and personalities. Some of them bark in excitement because they want to run, others are more restful and have a quick nap between tours, whilst still others pull at their leads to try to get the tour started earlier! We happened to have the first sled in line and were soon off with our team of six: Sometimes there are eight dogs in a team for when there are more people on the sled. The dogs might have liked to have another couple added to their number once we hit the uphill stretch! The dogs are partnered alongside the dog they live with. Usually the whole team are neighbours. If the team works well, the dogs are kept together but changes are made if required, such as if the dogs fight. It's rare but it can happen. Our own team was soon broken up because of a problem. It didn't involve fighting though: Ours was a team of five boys and a single, solitary female. Apparently a "heat team" had been out a couple of sessions before and it gave two or three of our males ideas about the female in our group, so she had to be removed and replaced! Soon we were off and running again. The dogs nearest the sleigh are wheel dogs. They tend to be males, since this position requires the most strength, the dogs taking weight on their shoulders. The dogs in the middle are the fastest. The first dogs are the leaders, the brains of the team, planning the route. Usually these are females. Don't worry about the cold and how much you would hate to be out in it. The dogs live outside and love Arctic conditions, tolerating up to minus 45 degrees. Optimum weather for running is minus 20. When they get hot, they just grab a mouthful of snow on the move to cool off: One of the few things you have to do as a driver is apply the brake when bends come up so that the dogs, in taking a corner at pace, don't end up swinging the sleigh off the track. The guide on the snowmobile gives you the hand signal to slow down, which you then relay to the people behind you: Before long, darkness had descended and the dogs led us home: Everything looked beautiful with the magnificent sky behind it: Our own dogs were too keen on grabbing a drink to want to play with us, so we went and said hello to some of the dogs who were already in place for the next tour. There were some really friendly dogs there! We then got a chance to warm up by a fire: Our guide served us some hot berry juice and gave us some information about the farm and the dogs there. She explained that the dogs don't eat in the morning because their guts might twist when they run. In the evening they get a kilo of raw meat and dog pellets. They work quite hard in the winter, running 20 to 30 kilometres a day. The season starts in early December until mid-April. In summer the dogs get to play outside because they don't do any running in the heat. Training for the new season starts in August. After that we got to meet the 13 puppies, born and raised there according to a strict breeding programme, where males are matched to females! Sometimes, however, there are surprise puppies. Otto, who is 14 and the oldest dog on site, used to escape by scaling a wall and then would open the door of the cells of the bitches in heat. You know what happened next. The puppies are kept as pups until they're one. They start training for a year and join a team at two, racing until they're ten. Old retired dogs typically live with the puppies, doing grandparenting. Sometimes they get a new home because there are people in the area who collect retired sled dogs. Once they get a taste of it, the puppies love running. The relative calm can quickly be broken by puppies chanting in unison once they catch sight of another team getting ready to head out! One final look at the farm with that wonderful combination of snow and sky, and then we were back on board our coach, returning home after a really fun day out!
  21. I hadn't fancied joining Tim and Alfie at the huskies today, not being a huge fan of dogs. That meant I had to find something else to do instead. I decided to opt for snowshoeing, and re-do the trail which we had all done together on Sunday. It had been snowing all through the night and so as I left the apartment behind and made my way towards the woods, the ground was covered in fresh snow. When I got to the point where the path began, I could see that a machine had been along to flatten the snow down a bit, making it easier to walk on, but it still seemed a lot deeper than on Sunday. Time to put snowshoes on! I set off on the path through the trees It was very cloudy today so the colours in the sky weren't as impressive as they have been on other days, but it was still really lovely. The trees seemed even more laden down with snow than they had earlier in the week. We've been told before that they bounce back once the snow melts, but it looked like it was going to be harder for some than for others. Some looked like they were never going to bounce back at all! I had a go at taking a selfie with snowy trees, but it wasn't terribly successful I could actually have spent all day taking photos of trees Some of them were really huge... ...while others were barely poking up through the snow. By this point I felt like I must be getting close to the cafe. Sure enough, I soon got confirmation that I was getting to the icy part of the walk. I figured if I'd got across the ice once, I could do it again I managed it without any problems and was soon back on the snow. I passed the cafe without going in; it was starting to snow again, so I thought it seemed best to press on. The most exciting thing about the next bit of the path was that I was the first person to walk on the fresh snow It was such a beautiful walk. The path led past a stream, which wasn't completely frozen... ...and then under some more bent-over trees. I had another go at a selfie here Then I got to the downhill slope part of the walk. This actually seemed easier today, with more snow to dig the snowshoes into. After that, it was back up through the valley of trees... ...and back to the road. You can't really tell from the photos, but at this point there was a minor blizzard, with lots of snow falling and a rather strong wind. By the time I eventually got back to the apartment, I was rather cold It was a great walk though and wonderful to walk in the fresh snow
  22. Nearly everybody does something to celebrate the New Year. But how many people get to do it on a lake? This was our plan for the night. It was snowing when we left the apartment: The flakes were tiny but there were a lot of them coming down! We already know the walk to the lake very well but it was even clearer tonight because the path had been lined with candles: We were some of the first people to arrive and so didn't have to queue to buy some warming drinks. These were apple juice which was heated with cinnamon, cloves and aniseed: There was still plenty of snow as we walked the short distance to the lake: And there we stood with our hot drinks until, all of a sudden, a fireworks display launched from the middle of the lake! There were all sorts of fireworks! There weren't too many people there and soon we all started to walk home. But not before recording a message:
  23. If yesterday was all about snowshoeing, today was all about skiing! Tim and I had tried cross-country skiing in Lapland a couple of times before but it's very easy to forget everything you've learned from one year to the next, and this was going to be Alfie's first time on skis, so we'd booked a beginners' lesson for this morning. The good news was that the weather was a bit warmer today, and so it was only about minus 12 as we made our way to the starting point for the lesson. We had to carry our skis down to the frozen lake, which has the advantage of being completely flat, so is an excellent place for beginners to practise Although it was 10am, as you can see in the photos it was still quite dark and the street lights were still on. We soon got to the lake. As you can see in this photo, cross-country skiing is done within tracks which are carved into the snow by special machines. You place each of your skis in the tracks and then follow them wherever they lead. First of all we learned how to clip into our skis... ...and then we were ready to go... ...although we were temporarily distracted by the beautiful pink colour of the sky This time it was sunrise rather than sunset. The instructor told us to put just one ski on first of all and to practise gliding in one of the tracks. Whilst we practised, the sky turned an even deeper shade of red. Once we'd mastered one foot at a time, we progressed onto skis on both feet. The instructor was a bit mean and confiscated our ski poles so that we had to work on our balance! Alfie was a bit better at it than me The sunrise continued to be incredible as we practised going up and down the tracks on the lake. With practice I was maybe getting a bit better Eventually we were given our poles back and I felt a lot happier. There was just time to have a last look at the sunrise, before we skied right to the far end of the lake. From there we had to learn how to move uphill with our skis, which was rather hard work. You have to stick your feet outwards like a penguin and try very hard not to slip backwards as you take small steps up the slope. Once we'd managed this, we were off the lake and onto one of the ski tracks beyond it. The terrain here was a bit more uneven, but it was exciting as we were skiing through the trees. At this point only one more challenge remained; skiing down a very steep slope! It looked way too steep for me so I opted out, but Tim and Alfie both managed it Alfie got most of the way down before falling over (but managed to stand back up again straightaway, using a technique we'd been taught at the beginning of the class). Tim's attempt went a bit wrong when he managed to come out of the tracks and descended the hill very fast indeed, although he somehow succeeded in getting back into the tracks in the end and remained upright throughout. Unfortunately no videos of this! That concluded the lesson, so it was time to head back to the lake. We were all rather tired by this point, so headed back to the apartment for a much-needed rest. Later this evening we'll be setting off for the lake again, this time to celebrate New Year
  24. When we picked up our equipment from the rental shop yesterday, the man there warned us that today was going to be a cold day. Sure enough, when we got up and ventured outside this morning, we found it was very cold indeed! Minus 20 was a big change from yesterday, which had felt comparatively mild for Lapland. It was so cold that I could feel my eyelashes starting to freeze. Our plan for today was to go snowshoeing in the woods behind the village. There's a really good path which we've used in previous years and is perfect for snowshoes. First of all we had to walk along one of the side roads out of the village, just wearing our normal boots. Then when we got to the start of the path, it was time to put our snowshoes on Tim might not have felt cold, but we could already see his hair and moustache starting to freeze! The path leads through the snowy trees and is criss-crossed at different points by ski runs and tracks for snowmobiles. Most of the time we were just completely alone in the forest though As always, the hardest part about snowshoeing is getting the straps on the snowshoes attached tightly enough that they don't fall off. It's the sort of thing which is easy to do when you're sitting down inside, but really difficult when you're outside in the snow and your fingers are numb. We got there in the end though After a while the path leads down into a snowy valley. We were surrounded by enormous trees on both sides. And we could just see the bumps of smaller trees poking up through the snow. The sky wasn't quite as bright as yesterday, but there were still some beautiful colours in it. It didn't come out in the pictures, but we could actually see the moon in the distance as well. After pausing for a while to take some photos, we were off again! In this part of the forest there were some trees which were really laden down by snow. Although it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, we knew that we were now only a kilometre or so away from a cafe. That was good news, because we were now all starting to feel very cold. It wasn't just Tim's hair that was starting to freeze; mine was as well! The snow was deeper on this part of the walk, so we were glad that we had our snowshoes. There was just one final obstacle for us to cross before we could get inside in the warm for a bit 😮 I didn't like the look of that at all! We decided to send Tim across first to see whether it would bear his weight He got across without any problems, so Alfie went next and then I brought up the rear. The sign showed that we'd walked 4.8km from the village now. That meant that finally we were at the cafe and we could relax with a warm drink It was nice looking out at the snow from indoors for a while. We couldn't sit still for too long though, because we only had a couple of hours of daylight left to complete the rest of the walk and get back to the village. The return walk follows a slightly different route, which took us past some trees that were completely bowed over by the snow. It also required us to climb down quite a steep snowy slope. From there we rejoined the same path that we'd been on previously... ...and retraced our steps back to the road, where we paused to take off our snowshoes. It was starting to get dark by this point, so we'd just finished the walk on time. We found that while we'd been out the temperature had dropped even lower, hitting a very cold minus 23! All that remained was to get into the warm again for some very well-deserved pizza
  25. When we woke up this morning, we found that it had been snowing overnight, so there was lots of fresh powdery snow outside our apartment. It was still snowing a little bit by the time we finished breakfast and went outside, in fact. Our first task for today was to walk to the sports shop from which we were renting our snowshoes and skis, so we set off into the centre of the village. It was fun walking through the snow to the shop. It was slightly less fun when, having collected everything, we had to carry all the rather heavy equipment back through the snow to the apartment! Once we'd recovered from our exertions we set off once again, this time for a more leisurely stroll. There were people skiing past us as we made our way back to the centre of the village. Before long we caught a glimpse of the frozen lake in the distance. We'd been for a stroll down to the lake last night when we'd been taking advantage of the supermarket Wi-Fi to post our blog. It was different seeing it in the daylight though Part of the lake isn't completely frozen, where the local river flows into it. That part of the lake is completely fenced off with warning signs though, so there's no chance of you making a mistake in the dark! The partially frozen river is very pretty too, as Alfie and Tim found when they crossed the road for a closer look. We'd come to the far end of the village now (it's only small!) so we turned around and headed back towards the supermarket. The carpark outside the supermarket is home to this enormous reindeer... ...and from the far side of the car park, you can catch a glimpse of the local reindeer farm too. Some of the reindeer had huge antlers. A path leads down from behind the supermarket to the frozen lake. As you descend onto the lake, you can see the boathouses where people keep their boats in summer. And then all you can see is the enormous frozen lake itself, and some of the snowy fells in the background. There are a couple of paths to follow to walk across the lake. There are also a couple of ski runs, which are marked by red poles so that you don't stray onto them by mistake. As we made our way into the middle of the lake, we started to notice the unusual pink colours in the sky. The further we walked, the pinker it began to look... ...until suddenly it was very pink indeed! It was after 1pm by this point, so perhaps it was the beginning of sunset! It was beautiful anyway, and the most unusual colours we've ever seen in the sky in Lapland Tim was taking a picture of Alfie with the view... ...when I turned around and realised there were some reindeer walking across the lake! We were quite a long way away, so it was difficult to get a good photo, but they were definitely there. How exciting! As we finally got to the far edge of the lake, the sky looked increasingly dramatic. We followed a smaller path up into the trees on the other side of the lake for a while. This took us up past some cabins and to a small road... ...from where we had a view back down towards the lake. We couldn't really risk exploring any further in case it started to get dark, so we turned around to come back. Once we got back down to the lake, we could see that it was indeed starting to look like twilight. We did a bit of shopping at the supermarket and then headed back to the apartment just as darkness fell and the street lights started to come on again. We were quite tired by this point, having walked about six miles in the snow, but it was definitely worth it for the amazing views
  26. As soon as we got back from Lapland last January, we knew that we wanted to go again. Because the flights can be so expensive, we started looking at December 2018 prices straightaway and soon found an unexpectedly cheap option to fly to Helsinki with British Airways from Heathrow. There was a twist this year in that we also wanted to bring Tim's oldest nephew, Alfie, with us on the trip and so it was that less than a month after getting home from last year's holiday, we had already booked three return flights for this year. We managed to find reasonably-priced connecting flights from Helsinki to Kittila with Norwegian too, so we were all set to return to our favourite destination of Äkäslompolo. The thing which gave us the most trouble was finding accommodation. When we've booked in the past, apartments in Lapland have been quite flexible about the start and end dates for rentals. There seemed to have been a change this year, with the majority of accommodation only wanting to rent from Saturday to Saturday, at least for the Christmas week. We eventually managed to track down one solitary apartment which it was possible to let from a Friday to a Friday (which was what we needed to take advantage of the cheap flights we'd booked) and the good news was that it had room for three people. There was only one catch - it didn't have any Wi-Fi Could we survive an entire week without internet?! There were no other affordable options, so we decided we'd have to give it a go and hope that there would be some free Wi-Fi somewhere in the village of Äkäslompolo! Our flight from Heathrow to Helsinki was at 11am on Thursday, so we had a fairly civilised start to the holiday by our standards, not needing to leave home until 06.30. That was still early enough to avoid most of the traffic, so the drive down to Heathrow all went well and we arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare, so we could enjoy a leisurely breakfast. Our flight took off almost exactly on time and three hours later we touched down in the Finnish capital. Finland is two hours ahead of the UK, so it was just after 4pm here and already almost dark! More surprising than the darkness was the fact that there was a little bit of snow on the ground in Helsinki. There had been lots of articles in the British newpapers over the past month about a lack of snow in Lapland, following an unseasonally warm and dry November, so it was a relief to see that the weather was getting back to normal. If it was cold and snowy as far south as Helsinki, then we should be guaranteed lots of snow in Äkäslompolo Our onward flight to Lapland wasn't until Friday, so we stayed overnight in a hotel a couple of kilometres away from the airport. There was a free shuttle bus to the hotel from outside the main terminal, which was nice and convenient. When we checked in we found the rooms were a little on the small side, but nevertheless fine for one night. The other good thing about the hotel was that it was less than a kilometre away from a large shopping centre complex, which we'd discovered when we were in Helsinki this time last year. As soon as we'd got settled into our rooms, we set off through the snow to find it. It really wasn't far and we found a restaurant where we were all able to have a burger and chips for around €15 each, which is a bargain by Helsinki standards We then headed back to the hotel for an early night, because we had an early start for our flight on Friday morning. Our flight from Helsinki to Kittila was at 08.45 and the free shuttle bus was coming to take us to the airport at 06.00. That meant we had to arrange to meet for breakfast at 05.15, which felt a little bit painful! The hotel had a good breakfast buffet though, even if it was a bit difficult to take full advantage of it so early in the morning. Once we got to the airport, we had to track down one of the self check-in machines to print our boarding passes and baggage labels. This was the point at which our holiday all started to go wrong last year, when we failed to attach the baggage labels to our suitcases securely enough, with the result that Tim's label fell off and his bag didn't make it to Lapland! We weren't going to make the same mistake this year, and Tim made sure that all three labels were 100% stuck before we went to the baggage drop-off desk to hand them over. The flight to Kittila took around 90 minutes and soon we were landing in the snow The pilot told us before we got off the plane that it was minus 13 outside. That didn't stop someone getting off just wearing a T-shirt though! We soon discovered that all our bags had made it to Kittila as well (yay!). It was only about 10.30 at this point and we weren't allowed to check into our accommodation in Äkäslompolo until 16.00, so we decided to strategically miss the 11am airport bus and have a drink in the airport cafe, catching the bus which was scheduled to meet the flight after ours instead. Tim and Alfie also used the time to get changed into all their proper thermals! The next bus departed shortly after midday. Like all airport buses in Nordic countries, this one is a little bit on the expensive side, and it cost almost €70 for us all to buy tickets. Those are returns though, so now we just need to not lose the tiny slip of paper they gave us before next week... Once we left the airport behind and started driving through the snowy countryside, the views were amazing. We definitely needn't have worried that there wasn't going to be enough snow Now that it was finally daylight, it was a clear sunny day and so we had some great views of the fells in the distance as the bus drove us towards Äkäslompolo. The driver dropped us off in the centre of the village just after 1pm and we headed to our favourite restaurant to get some food. Alfie and I had enormous ham and pineapple pizzas, while Tim had another burger. By the time we had done a bit of shopping in the nearby supermarket as well, it was after 14.30 and so we decided to try our luck at checking into the apartment a bit early. We didn't have to meet anyone for check-in, having already been sent the code for the key box outside the property, so with luck we might be able to sneak in at 15.00 without anyone noticing! As we set off towards the apartment, it was already starting to look a bit like twilight and it felt very, very cold. We passed one of the village's public thermometers, which confirmed that it was in fact minus 17! Luckily we didn't have too much further to go and our run of good luck continued when the key code I'd been given for the apartment actually worked (another huge improvement on last year, when we were locked out after the rental company sent us the wrong code!). The apartment is nice and comfy inside; almost identical to the ones that we have stayed in in previous years, except that it has a staircase to a separate floor with an additional bedroom for Alfie Most importantly it's extremely warm inside, so we have all been able to thaw out. There really is no internet, but we did discover earlier that there is a free Wi-Fi network at the supermarket. This may be the first time I'm keen to be included in all the holiday shopping trips and probably also the most excited Alfie has ever been at being taken to a supermarket
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